skip to Main Content

Voegelin in Munich

Voegelin In Munich

Q. Why did Voegelin found the institute in Munich?

peter j. opitz: About 1952 or ’53, you can find letters where he expresses inter­est in going back to Europe. He was invited by [Max] Horkheimer and [Theodor] Adorno to give some lectures in Frankfurt, where a chair was open. Some of the profes­sors there tried to get Voegelin to come, but he refused. Two years later, when the plans were drawn up to establish the Munich institute, he was willing to come. He wasn’t the first choice, but had the strong support of Alois Dempf, author of Sacrum Imperium.

michael naumann: Did anyone ever tell you the story about how Adorno and Horkheimer tried to lure him to Frankfurt? It is an anecdote he told fre­quently. After the war, when they were rebuilding the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, he was invited to come. And he said that he went through Frankfurt, which was in ruins, and he was totally shaken by the sight.

He came to visit Horkheimer and Adorno for a dinner, during which they tried to persuade him to join the institute. He said that it was a dinner of the most unbelievable bourgeois, high-class quality; the discussion was about the quality of the wine and the horrors of capitalism! And to see this son of a banker, Horkheimer, and Adorno discussing the horrors of capitalism and to see the unbelievable refinement of that dinner in the middle of misery–that was what persuaded him to stay away.

Q. I’ve heard several different versions of how he was induced to come to Munich, and his reasons for doing so. He was a Boyd Professor of Government at Louisi­ana State University and that was a good position. LSU was not at the time a particularly great university, but it was respectable. He had a well-established position there, and his major work had just started to come out. But then he left.

florian sattler: I think he always wanted to come back to Europe. He liked the idea of working in European libraries, and he knew one person from Vienna who had had to emigrate from Hitler’s Germany. Alois Dempf was a philosopher, and Dempf had friends in the Bavarian Ministry of Culture, and they decided to invite him. And political science in Germany was something new.

All of it was done by emigres: by Adorno and Horkheimer in Frankfurt, and by Arnold Bergstraesser in Freiberg, for example. They had all gone to the United States and had come back to teach something of what they had learned over there: democracy, the education of a young German generation. Voegelin never was a missionary, but something of that feeling must have been in him as well.

Q. There was some politics involved?

f. sattler: Well, I think Voegelin’s call came quite late. The other political sci­ence institutes in Frankfurt and Cologne had been established in the early fifties. But the house that published Science, Politics, and Gnosticism [Koesel] was a Catholic publisher; it did textbooks for kids and so on. And there was the place of the church within the university to consider: there is a treaty between the Vatican and the Bavarian state that one of the professors of phi­losophy must uphold a commitment to the Church.

Alois Dempf held this Catholic philosophy chair. Dempf was not politically minded, even though he was a liberal Catholic. So, I think they hired Voegelin as a great scholar, not as a conservative ideologue.

Q. Why was the Bavarian government interested in Voegelin?

hans maier: It was, as far as I remember, mainly the idea of Alois Dempf.

Q. But Voegelin was far away, in Louisiana.

maier: Voegelin came back often from the United States. People knew about the New Science of Politics and about his articles. There were also articles in German newspapers, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In the political situation of the time, Voegelin was preferred for this chair by conservative Catholics because they knew his work. And he was accepted by the left-liberal government because they thought that a returning emigrant could not be conservative.

Founding the Institute

tilo schabert: When Voegelin came to Munich, there was no institute; there was nothing. So, he contacted colleagues in the field whom he trusted to rec­ommend to him young people whom he could appoint as assistants. That is how he got acquainted with Jürgen Gebhardt: Gebhardt had been a doctoral student with another great scholar, Franz Schnabel. Peter Weber-Schäfer was a student in Chinese studies, and he was also recommended to Voegelin. Heinz Laufer had been recommended by Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, who was at that time a great jurist in Würzburg.

So, that was the first generation. The second generation was Peter Opitz, Manfred Henningsen, and Peter von Sivers: they started as research assistants, so this was the first generation of real students of Voegelin. They had attended his lectures and seminars and then became his assistants.

Q. Why did Voegelin found the institute?

jürgen gebhardt: First, I think, he wanted to get out of Baton Rouge. He could not have had any grand plans for the chair at first, with only two assistants and a secretary. He was supposed to develop a curriculum dealing with what “polit­ical education” should be. What should be the most important task for future gymnasium teachers? Then, of course, he wanted to introduce Germany to the highest level of political science.

He thought it was necessary to reintro­duce a scientific political philosophy in Germany. He agreed in some respects with Arnold Bergstraesser: they cooperated on the basis of a philosophical agreement regarding Aristotelian political science, a science of order.

That was the first thing he wrote for the student catalogue. At that time, nobody understood it: three pages of “what is political science?” It was strictly Voegelinian, comprehending classical political philosophy with Aristotle, Western civic government, the study of East Asian and Islamic civilizations.

Classical political philosophy would always be the core, and built upon this would be Christian, Islamic, and East Asian political thought. That was his concept; that is what he thought should be taught, and that is what he did teach. But it was not what the ministry had expected him to teach; it had expected him to teach German government and after that whatever else he wanted to pick up.

Q. What were his ambitions for the institute?

martin sattler: Papers at the University of Munich describe his ideas of what the institute should be–long texts with many pages and all kinds of graphs. Nothing has been written so far about this grand design. There were to be seven professors, and it was to be an undertaking that covered all civi­lizations.

And some of that was realized: Peter von Sivers did medieval Islamic work, Peter Weber-Schäfer was in charge of Japan and China, and my brother, Florian, was in charge of Spain and Latin America. His grand design then had to be scaled down, but the design of the institute had the underly­ing ambition of replacing the official German Staatslehre with something new. That was his intent right up to the end, when he left in 1968.

Q. But that is not what he was hired to do.

m. sattler: Well, he was hired to introduce American political science to Bavaria. But for him, this meant, “Aha, through the establishment of this new discipline, I can finally change the official interpretation of public order into something that is more demanding and philosophical.” That’s the way he saw it.

richard allen: I think that by the time I encountered Voegelin, he was really at the zenith of his practical power in the sense of running the institute. He had a chair at the University of Munich and the institute was pretty well funded, and he had a grand scheme for the institute. At least, he told a few of us pri­vately that he was going to get into everything, into all sorts of aspects of what would be considered a modern political science institute.

It would have area studies and the like, so I could tell that his interests in those kind of things were also real, that he wanted to have something that was complete in every sense of the word. Yet he wanted to reserve that inner circle of theory, percep­tion, and the search for truth for himself and his closest associates.

Voegelin’s Daily Routine

manfred henningsen: He always had the habit of being in the office early in the morn­ing. At that time, Peter Weber-Schäfer was still in the bathtub and Jürgen Gebhardt was in a deep sleep, so it was a very, very complicated ritual to get people there. He never understood that, when people wouldn’t be there when he was there; he sometimes got furious. For some reason, he had become Americanized in that respect; he was not Viennese at all.

gebhardt: We would come in the morning, and he would say, “Have you read this?” Of course, he knew that nobody had read it. He would come into the office and talk to his students or assistants, would talk about a new devel­opment in national politics or something. Everybody was impressed until the institute began to subscribe to the Herald-Tribune. He had had the Herald-Tribune delivered to his home every morning before breakfast, and he would read the most recent edition of the Herald-Tribune, then come to the institute to tell everybody what he had read in the paper.

He came at nine to the office for administrative work, would lecture on Tuesday all day. I think on Wednesday or Monday was another lecture. There were three courses, one seminar and two lecture courses. At nine o’clock, he would do administrative work, then he would go home for lunch and then nap after lunch and then take a walk.

He would go to a coffeehouse and would eat a piece of cake, then he would go home and work until two in the morning or something like that–before dinner and after dinner. When he did not go to the office, he started work at nine o’clock. But he would still take a nap and, after the nap, a walk. His wife didn’t like him to go to the coffee­house, but he would always eat at least one piece of cake, have a cup of cof­fee, and then go home to do some more work.

Q. Did he ever gossip?

opitz: He liked to hear gossip, as did Lissy. Manfred Henningsen was a main source of gossip. He had a gift for it, and he knew everything. While other assistants of Voegelin were still sleeping, Manfred would already be at the institute, and Voegelin would be very interested to hear what Manfred had to say. When he opened the door and gave an account of the weekend, Voegelin enjoyed that.

Q. He taught both lectures and seminars?

opitz: Yes. He usually had two lectures: one on Tuesday morning, one on Wednesday morning. And he had two seminars at night: Tuesday night and Wednesday night. Usually courses on philosophy of history, an introduction to political theory, an introduction to American government, sometimes the theory of revolution and sometimes classical political philosophy–especially Plato and Aristotle.

Spirit and Irony in the Lecture Hall

claus-ekkehard bärsch: I first heard of him in ’58 or ’59. I was studying law, Staatslehre, and it was very boring. Voegelin had just given a lecture about political institutions in America, including the Constitution. At his first lec­ture, I was convinced by him. But I was also opposed to him–convinced by him and opposed to him at once.

I was attracted, because he knew a lot! Not only about political theory, but about institutions and the way institutions cooperate under the American Constitution compared to the German insti­tutions and the German Constitution. I learned more about the German Constitution, the Grundgesetz, in this lecture than I did from the regular lec­tures by German professors for public and constitutional law!

But at that time, I was also influenced by left-wing student organizations. So, there was a conflict. What my friends from Schwabing and the Liberaler Studenten-Bund discussed in politics was what Voegelin indicated to be sectarian ideology.

I was really attracted because Voegelin was very ironic; he really had a sense of humor. He made a lot of allusions and he was very learned about poets and such. His was an ironic style, an ironic wittiness that had a great deal of intellectual spirit. And in my eyes, he looked like the young Gustav Gründgens.

Q. Who is Gustav Gründgens?

bärsch: Gustav Gründgens was a famous German actor in the ’20s and after the war. He became famous throughout the world, both with his acting in Mephisto and his work as artistic director of the Hamburg and Düsseldorf theaters.

Another thing: usually the German professor gave a lecture and that was it. Voegelin took a break. He smoked a cigar and then it was possible after the break to ask him something. When you said to him, “I didn’t understand this or that,” he answered. He really answered! He was polite. He would say, “Somebody asked me this question and he didn’t understand, so I will repeat it. It was a very interesting question.”

Now, I was from East Germany . . .

Q. A refugee?

bärsch: I was a refugee, yes. And I was hungry for spirit! And this was a pro­fessor who had spirit, thank goodness. That was why I was really very impressed.

There is an anecdote Gregor Sebba used to tell about him. After Sebba lis­tened to his first lecture, Voegelin asked him, “How did you like my lecture?” Sebba told him how much he had appreciated it, how much he had learned, and how very interesting it was. But he had the feeling that Voegelin was aim­ing too high over the heads of the students. To which Voegelin responded, “I’m aiming my words at the place where the heads of my students should be!”

Q. Did they eventually grow to reach it?

friedemann büttner: Yes, they did. His lectures were always full. There were always two hundred students at a time when political science had just been established as a field of study and nobody knew what you could do with a degree in polit­ical science from the University of Munich.

The Star

Q. Did you attend the Hitler lectures as well?

büttner: Yes, I remember how furious he was after the diaries of [Percy] Schramm were published. Schramm had had this introduction to his book published in Der Spiegel, and he said that you couldn’t say anything about Hitler because he was demonic. Voegelin became furious at this and said, “We have to change the program.” So, everybody was sent out to collect articles, and I think Manfred Henningsen was sent out to advertise the lecture.

dagmar herwig: There were a lot of interesting professors at Munich, but I focused on Voegelin. Why? It’s very hard to say, actually. In part it was because Voegelin was very much “in” in 1961.

Q. He was “in?”

herwig: Yes, yes, he was a star. He was interesting; he said uncommon things. He did not share the political opinions people had at that time in Germany. He came from the United States and had not been here during the Nazi time. So, there were a lot of things that made him very interesting for people who were just nineteen or twenty years old, because we were very much interested in the recent German past. And he was one of those who made a point of dis­cussing it.

Everybody came to his lectures on Hitler. He had a very small lec­ture room at the beginning, but then he had to change to a large one because so many people came. So, there were a lot of reasons to get interested in political science in Munich. Of course, once you went there and listened to him, you were impressed very quickly because he had this broad horizon. He wasn’t teach­ing one author or one period or one country or one theory, but he had this horizon that extended from the beginning of mankind to the recent past.

He taught political theory in an unusual way. It was not empirical political sci­ence, it was not a theory of government, although he did that too. It was very philosophical, it was historical, it was international. He talked about China, about ancient China and its role, and about Greece and about the modern United States and about the founding fathers of the United States and about the English political theorists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

So, it was everything, really. At the beginning, it seemed rather unsystematic; even if you were intelligent and had already read quite a few books, it was still far beyond your own horizon. So, at first, we didn’t understand anything–or at least I didn’t. It was just highly interesting.

But he was interesting as a person, too. He had a fascinating way of lectur­ing, moving from left to right and right to left. And he was a very good actor on stage. He was not just standing in the same place for two hours and talk­ing, as some other professors did.

He went back and forth and he looked at people and he took out his handkerchief and he blew his nose and he looked out the window. And at times, what he said was very meaningful and at times it was ironic. He was just a star. And he was a very, very good actor. He needed his audience, too.

kathrin sitzler: I simply went to a lecture of Professor Voegelin and was fascinated because he spoke entirely freely. And the second fascinosum, something I immediately became angry with myself about, was that I did not understand very much of his lecture.

Q. What lecture was it precisely?

sitzler: That I don’t know anymore. I think it was on political theory, and it could be that it came from this cycle of his, his work on political theory and the history of ideas. The second of his lectures spoke about Mesopotamia, for example, and about classical Greece. I don’t think it was the lecture on the history of philosophy, but it might have been. I didn’t understand much, but I stayed anyway. After two semesters, I gave up my study of communication theory and took up political theory instead.

How a Great Intellect Thinks

What was fascinating about him was that he spoke completely freely. And because what he said was of high qualitative value, I really paid attention. I was also fascinated because, in the lectures themselves, he developed certain lines of thought; so, we got to experience directly, so to speak, how a great intellect thinks. And that was fascinating. At some points, one could actually perceive that he was working something out as he went along.

He had a very light Austrian accent and usage. He used foreign words that were still used in Austria but were not used much in Germany. But it was also very thoroughly structured; he usually returned to exactly the same point he wanted to discuss, so that these were no simple diversions through which one felt completely lost. It was very precise and had a clear progression.

schabert: When I went to his public lectures, it was a revelation I shared with other students at the time in Munich, this remarkable impression of some­one talking in a very serious way, being earnest on the one hand, but on the other, full of irony and humor and mockery. And of course there was a huge age difference: I was twenty and he was sixty-two. But the way he gave this lecture, he could have been one of us. He was someone being very imperti­nent–impudent, so to speak. And that appealed to me immensely.

Q. This was the history of political philosophy course?

schabert: Yes, it was the history of political thought in modern times. I still have the notes: Machiavelli, Bodin. I didn’t understand a great deal.

It was before ’68, and the number of students at the University of Munich was much lower than it is today. It was more upper class as well. And the lec­ture courses were delivered by professors who enjoyed a certain reputation: they taught a central core of studies, also unlike today, when there is no cen­tral core at all. Professors other than Voegelin also attracted a large crowd.

But Voegelin, because of his field and his refreshing and somewhat ironical, somewhat allusive and entertaining way of giving his lectures, continually attracted people from the city–adults, people of the age of forty or fifty, what the German universities call Gasthörer, “guest students.” You pay a small fee, and then you have the right to get an education.

So, there were quite often visitors in Voegelin’s lectures with the first three or four rows of the large lec­ture room usually occupied by these older people–mostly women, but also men. The younger, regular students sat behind them.

The UnGerman Professor

tilo schabert: Voegelin also attracted some professors, people from other fields. There was a variety of people, ages, and origins in a very traditional lecture for the general public. He kept the attention of his audience throughout the semester. Usually people drop out, but with Voegelin there were very few dropouts.

Q. And this was because of his performance and his irony? Someone said they thought this was very American.

schabert: Yes and no. Certainly, it was American to the extent that Voegelin would speak without books or with only very few notes. As we now know from the archives, he had some kind of outline, but he very often extempo­rized and spoke about things that had just crossed his mind, so that you had the experience of someone sharing the wealth of his thoughts.

He walked around, and that is un-German: a good German would speak from behind his podium, like this famous picture of Hegel sticking his head from behind it. Even today, people do it that way. But Voegelin, particularly when he felt he was getting his message across, would walk up and down.

And he would have this very interesting body language. Of course, he was attrac­tive then—I mean, attractive as a person. He would put his hand in his suit and, in a very gracious way, he would make these nasty and ironic remarks. He would walk up and down, and sometimes he would see things and address people even with his body language.

Particularly when he had some ironic and sharp point to make, he would turn around like a dancer; he would make a kind of pause to enhance the effect and then he would drop the bomb. That was a real performance. That may have been “American.”

On the other hand, he was a very European, Continental gentleman in the sense that he wouldn’t make any cheap jokes. He wouldn’t play to the audi­ence in the sense of an entertainer, which I think is sometimes the case at an American university. If you make jokes, you go down a level. But he would be uncompromising in maintaining the high level of his lecture.

Classroom Performances and Polished Lectures

florian sattler: You could interrupt the lecture. In Germany, the normal lecture is a very formal and ritualized thing. You all sit down, and one person sleeps and some others write, and normally there is no dialogue.

It was a big risk to ask him, of course, because usually he took you to be a representative of some ideology. Even if you didn’t understand something as a student, he would say, “You are a relativist, you are a Marxist!” Or some other kind of weird ideo­logue. So, it was a risk! But some of us took the risk and would react to his lectures.

Q. Having students put up their hands to ask questions happens in American uni­versities.

f. sattler: To me, he was very much an American. His accent was foreign: you understood from the first sentence that he was not a native English speaker, but to us German students, he still very much made the impression of being an American professor. So, I took this to be an American habit.

But he also had a strong, melodious Viennese accent. Although he was born in Germany, he was ten or eleven when he went to Vienna. As a person born in Munich, you heard immediately that he came from Vienna.

klaus vondung: He loved making controversial remarks, loved it tremendously. He almost never read from the manuscript when he gave lectures. There were only a few exceptions.

The semester after he gave the lectures on “Hitler and the Germans,”  there was a lecture given the same time every week, and each lecture was given by a different professor. His was about the role of the German universities.

He gave one lecture and it was published, as you know. It had a rhetorical polish, as it were, and he had worked out his lecture very formally and read this lecture. The one on Max Weber, I think, was similar. But apart from these lectures, he would speak freely—I think some ideas came during the flow of his speaking.

And I still remember the occasion of this lecture: he would look in his notes and then go on speaking and one had the impression that something shocking had just come into his mind. And he would step forward two or three steps, just to the rim of this podium where the lectern was, and he would almost shoot his nasty or sharp remarks at the audience. He would then stand there for a short moment to let it sink in and grin—I still remember the sardonic grin he would have.

florian seidl: His lectures were thrilling, because the first impression you had when he stood in front of you at the podium with the blackboard behind him was that it was like dancing. He was really elegant. He was also a little bit vain, I would say. It was like a performance. Sometimes he liked the things he said very much and when he made a good joke, he found it very funny.

It was very elegant, the way he stood and delivered it and also his words. He always spoke freely. He made very witty comments too; it was fantastic to listen to him and to hear his thoughts developing. He was very impressive, especially compared to the other German professors you saw at the university.

The other thing was that what he said was very convincing. The very spe­cial thing was that he [would] start, not from the argument, but from expe­rience. I think that was one of his conventions in order to transcend the Kantian dilemma: he said, “You have to go to the experiences.” And he really could explicate and show you the experiences that led to certain symbols.

Confronting the Nazi Past

hedda herwig: I visited Munich when I was still going to high school and my sister was studying at the University of Munich. She took me to his lectures on Machiavelli, and I was shocked. At this time, I was sixteen years old, and he talked quite the way Machiavelli would have, but I had been educated by a Social Democrat family and was really shocked. My sister gave me a copy of The New Science of Politics some months before I finished my Abitur, and I began to read it and felt a response to it, but it was too heavy for me. So, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Voegelin at first!

Then I began to see Manfred Henningsen—we almost got married. But even though I was Manfred Henningsen’s girlfriend, I still didn’t have much interest. Then Voegelin gave this lecture series, “Hitler and the Germans.”

Everyone went to these lectures, and a lot of the younger people were per­suaded by them. We had all had this problem with National Socialism, and there was one man who told us, “You have to see it this way, not the usual way.” Half of Munich was there, not only students! I heard this lecture and I liked it. So, I changed my major to political science.

Q. What about the older people? What was their response?

h. herwig: They were offended, because he said, “This was not the work of one man, National Socialism; there was corruption throughout the whole society.” And he picked out some examples. For our generation, it was no problem; we had nothing to lose, so we liked him! But the older ones were offended.

michael naumann: I went to study political science in Munich in 1963 because I wanted to become a journalist. But like everybody else in that age group, I also wanted to know why the Third Reich happened and what exactly hap­pened.

At that time, Germany was not really introspective. In fact, we were just coming out of an almost fifteen-year phase of a disregard of some of the most blatant criminal aspects of the Third Reich. And my generation didn’t want to live like that any more. So, I went to study political science with no particular professional prospects, only perhaps of becoming a journalist. You just went to university at that time and entered the humanities; you either wanted to become a teacher or to see what might happen. It was totally dif­ferent from the goal-oriented attitude that you find today.

The most memorable event for me was his lecture series on Hitler, which he never put into a book in his lifetime. It was riveting—the first time anything like that had occurred after the war in Germany. I was sitting in the auditorium, which was packed.

And a lot of the professors were those whom he called braunes Gesindel, which is the worst you can say about anybody. Gesindel is really bad: scum, brown scum. I’ll never forget it: “Und stellen Sie sich vor: mit diesem braunen Gesindel muss ich mich jeden Monat einmal in der Fakultät treffen!” [And just imagine it: with this brown scum I must have a faculty meeting every month!] Well, it certainly made the papers the next day.

Richard Allen Never Knew

This lecture series caused one person particular trouble: Richard Allen. Richard Allen had written a perfectly fine dissertation on the politics of coex­istence under Khrushchev. Because of his sources in think tanks and elsewhere, he was able to provide numerous revealing quotes of the leading characters of the Khrushchev regime itself and things that were uttered elsewhere in the provinces. It was a wonderful dissertation; there was nothing wrong with it.

Unfortunately, it was written for Voegelin, but his co-referent was a man called Raupach. And Raupach failed Allen, although his dissertation was right up his alley, because Raupach had in the past committed himself in written form to a number of classical National Socialist ideologies. He was one of the braunen Gesindels.

Dick Allen never knew what hit him. I had to explain all of this to him twenty years later when he was national security adviser to Ronald Reagan. His dissertation failed: it was the only dissertation under Voegelin ever to fail, because he just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This German professor had nothing to defend himself with, but he certainly took his revenge!

Healing German Society

f. sattler: I was at the Hitler lectures: it was libel! People were sitting on the windowsills, on the floor, everywhere. They were very exciting. It was exactly this kind of detail and lack of compromise that I wanted. I was born in the ’40s so I wanted to understand the Nazi times.

It is one of the things I still reproach myself for: we should have insisted that Voegelin put it in a book. I’m quite sure that it would have affected both political science in Germany and the intellectual debate in Germany in general, because much of what Germany is still looking for is an understanding of the Hitler catastrophe.

And this lecture was very precise and very, very factual. It was outstanding, and it happened before the revolt of the students that started in ’67 and ’68, so it was really impressive.

His lecture on the German university and the Third Reich presented his harsh criticism of the university of the ’30s, which did not react against the Nazi movement. Hannah Arendt said that when she was at the University of Heidelberg, you could count on two hands the people who even considered resisting. And Heidelberg was one of the liberal landmarks of the Weimar times!

Then he also offered a critique of the university of the ’50s and ‘6os, which failed to reflect on the utter defeat of the German university during the Hitler era.

Voegelin Running His Seminar

schabert: He attracted the largest number of his students through his lecture courses, not his seminars. Here he was, at least in my experience, much more restrained and also more offensive. He could be very sharp, very offensive, so he would put people off in seminars.

The problem is that, in the seminar, you expect students to want to learn. In the lecture courses, no work has to be done, whereas the seminar is supposed to be a dialogue between professor and students. Students, then, had to work: you don’t want people who haven’t done the necessary preparation or who don’t really know, for instance, the texts to be discussed.

Voegelin expected to have people in the seminars with whom he could work almost on an equal level, with whom he could talk, with whom he could discuss the matter at hand. And he depended on getting this from his students. But it didn’t happen very often, and his patience often ran very short. If someone revealed his or her ignorance, he could be very sharp and say, “Well, shut up.” So, the situation in the seminars generally was tense.

He was very sensitive, given his experience of National Socialism and the aggressive rhetoric of ideologies. And he was sensitive in general. So, it could happen that someone might be quite innocent but would use a word in what Voegelin believed to be a positivist way, and he would say that that student’s entire way of thinking was ideological. Then he could be very sharp and rep­rimand somebody and say, “This is a useless word. You haven’t studied. You should go home and study.” That could also happen.

Q. What was it like to participate in his seminars?

martin sattler: He would come in with his assistants, and they would all be smok­ing cigars! There would be a little introduction, then the papers would be pre­sented; somebody would read his paper. The papers would always have to be submitted beforehand to be read by Voegelin or one of his assistants, so it was a second presentation to an audience.

And the assistants would watch for a reaction in the room. There were always about twenty-five or thirty people in his seminar. Then, there was a very intense discussion of the paper. There was always a section where the theoretical questions were discussed, and there were long talks about the material used by the scholar to prove his thesis.

Voegelin’s way of proceeding in the seminar was very interesting: he would suddenly switch to the subject of a current political crisis. He never under­stood events as taking place far away from the theoretical material; he would connect the theoretical subject of the talks with everyday events. This high­lighted our sensitivity that science is taking place here and now.

Was Voegelin Inaccessible Or Was He Open?

Q. How did Voegelin run his seminars?

manfred henningsen: I don’t think he was a good seminar teacher. He was not acces­sible. He was not an American professor; he was really a German professor in a German university. I mean, you could ask questions in his lectures when you couldn’t do it in other lectures, that’s true. And there were other liberal features that were unusual in terms of breaking rules. But he was a patriarch, and he was really occupying his position with his presence. It came naturally to him, to be a patriarch.

friedemann büttner:  It came naturally to be a patriarch, but at the same time, he treated the people around him, once they were accepted as people with talent, as equals. And he didn’t overburden us, as many professors did.

thomas hollweck: His seminars were typical German seminars. The professor with his assistants walks in smoking his cigar, sits down, and says, “Now, let’s begin.” And so, in the smoke-filled rooms, we began.

But he ran them in a very open way. You know, normally people would present their reports, and if the reports were made as they had been assigned, then everything was fine. In other words, if you were supposed to give a report on a particular passage of Plato or Cicero or Machiavelli or whatever it was, the main point was that you really rendered what the text said and refrained from too much personal interpretation.

You could have it, but it then would really have to be yours coming out of the text. In general, he liked discussion and lively discussion, but he was intolerant of people using a lan­guage that had obviously been formed by something other than what we were talking about.

He still followed the old German model. I was also taking American stud­ies, which was run in an American style and did not have too many seminars with the old-style professors who were a lot stricter. The professor set the tone. So, in that sense, you could say Voegelin’s seminars were also American. But the level of discussion was probably more elevated than I find even in good universities in this country.

One thing about Voegelin was that he was really open. If you wanted to debate an issue, he debated it with you and he didn’t shoo you off. On the other hand, there were the stories going around about him being abrasive to people who would have had, as he called it, “intellectual gonorrhea.” Then, there were comments that could perhaps offend students if they were easily offended.

High Standards But Limited Pedagogical Eros

naumann: His academic standards, which were also projected by his assis­tants, were very demanding. You had to go through two pro-seminars, which were lower-level seminars, and then you went up into the Hauptseminar, or advanced seminar, where you could actually encounter the master—the mas­ter having had fearful standards, so you couldn’t wing it!

If you went to his classes or to seminars, you had to be well prepared. Students were afraid of his sarcasm. He would interrupt your presentation when you gave your paper, and if your paper was not up to what he thought was minimum aca­demic standards, he could even throw you out! He would shut you up.

Take the example of a very smart engineer who studied political science on the side. He put all his intellectual energy into a paper on reason in Aristotle. And he threw too many ideas into one paper, so it fell apart. Voegelin ripped into him and shattered his soul.

He was a man whose pedagogical eros was limited, I’m telling you. So, he really shattered this student, who gave up the study of political science to become an industrialist. It’s not a bad choice! But that gives you a side of Voegelin’s personality which was dominating and mercilessly demanding.

On the other hand, his insistence on maintaining intellectual standards and his insistence on your reading a lot before you open your mouth was unique, even at that time.

He brought the concept of the reading list from America. So, he really forced you—and so did his assistants—to read a lot. Not his books; he never insisted you read his books. But he gave you a lot of good hints on major books that anybody who has read will carry for the rest of his life.  So, I was in the fortunate position of having run into a person who, out of the millions of books available in academia, insisted on the good ones.

His perspective on the humanities was extraordinary. He introduced a lot of us to the world of Plato and Aristotle and Erasmus and the humanities and German and French and English literature, Thomas Mann, Proust, Canetti, and Karl Kraus, of course.

He ran his seminar so that, even if you were only half-industrious, you could not leave less intelligent than when you entered. This was at a time when people were actually teaching in Germany in a way that you usually left a little dumber than when you had arrived.

büttner: The assistants did much of the work. One of the most exciting sem­inars I had was with Weber-Schäfer on ancient Israel: a group of students meeting with him at his home every week with carefully prepared full-scale seminar papers. But it was not a university seminar, it was just a working group studying Israel and Revelation in the context of other literature on Israel. And that was very exciting.

A Demanding Teacher

friedemann büttner: Peter Opitz was writing his habilitation on the process of the reformulation of order in China from the first reactions to the Europeans through various stages.

And we had discovered that there were very similar stages of intrusion and reaction in China and the Middle East. So, we held a joint seminar dis­cussing the parallels of social and political change.

We were standing in the hall and talking, and Voegelin walked by and stopped and said, “What are you talking about?” And we said, “Well, it’s about our seminar.” “What’s the semi­nar about?” And we told him. Then he said, “But you are not supposed to waste your time with seminars, you are supposed to write your theses.”

Q. What were his seminars like?

friedemann büttner: Presenting a paper in his seminar was very, very trying for many students. I remember how difficult it was for some of the people who were working in the same cohort. One of my colleagues already suffered from hav­ing a towering figure as a father at home. And now he had a second one here.

He was bright, careful in his studies, well balanced, and very well read. But he never finished. Okay, that could have happened with any professor, but I think it had something to do with this: once you realized what Voegelin not only knew and had read himself, but what analytical power he had, it could be very difficult to please him. So, some just gave up.

michael hereth: He wanted us to work. He always insisted, “You must read much more!” Students today don’t read any more, but at that time, he could really work a ground that was fertile. And he did. I read Augustine, for example, and Aristotle from the beginning to the end.

He forced us to read. It was a good education for his students, and the main thing for which I am grateful. I came from a good gymnasium and had not had many problems with my studies. But when I fell into the hands of Voegelin, he told me that I was stupid. He didn’t say, “You are stupid,” but instead “You must read more.”

Standing up to Voegelin in Class

Q. You had to read very carefully, too?

michael hereth: Exactly, exactly. The first time I practiced preparing a publication, it was on Tocqueville. It had nothing to do with Voegelin. But when I was writ­ing this book, I thought very often of Voegelin. Voegelin was still looking over my shoulder, forcing me to do it well! That was his contribution to my intel­lectual upbringing.

kathrin sitzler: In the seminar, he was strict and scrutinized whether we had read very closely the texts on which we were to hold our presentations. One of his notorious questions was always, “Where does it say that?” If one said, “Rousseau said this or said that,” it was always, “Where?” In the first Haupt-seminar I was in, I wrote a paper on Rousseau’s Social Contract. I presented it more or less freely, because I knew that that impressed him to some extent.

And in the discussion, he said, “Yes, with Rousseau, that is always misinter­preted: he is always regarded as one of the fathers of the French Revolution. But in the entire Contrat Social, the word revolution does not appear at all.”

But I had read the text very closely, and I was also still young, naive and impertinent. So, I said to him, “Herr Professor, please excuse me. But please open the Contrat Social to this chapter and this and this paragraph and there you will read the word revolution.” And he did it.

This impertinence then contributed to my getting a position with him as an assistant. He accepted it completely in the seminar. Correction, therefore, was something he accepted.

martin sattler: He would sometimes say to a student, “Oh, I didn’t know that. You have brought me something that I didn’t know yet.” Which was extremely helpful for us.

I remember I once gave him a book: it was Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean (1885). This of course was ridiculous, for a student to bring a book to a scholar. At first he was astonished; it was a novel he didn’t know.

And I said, “This is all about you, you know!” Which is a cheeky way of approach­ing an old professor. But he wrote me a letter saying that he hadn’t under­stood at first what I meant, but that after he read the book, he understood what I meant.

Guests: Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Kuczinski, and Alexander Zinoviev

jüergen gebhardt: From the ’30s up to the ’50s and ‘6os, he always contacted people in other fields whom he thought to be competent in their areas of study. If you read his correspondence in the United States and when he got to Europe, he would talk to people whose books he had read.

Whenever he hit on a new, interesting book, he would try to get in contact with the author. So, if you worked with him at the Institute, you would always be meeting people. We would always keep up with a whole range of developments and would get the material, the books, and the contacts, the scientists.

hereth: I met Hannah Arendt in Voegelin’s seminar. You were in the presence of two different types of persons: the typical German professor with Voegelin, who was never an American professor, but a typical German pro­fessor exuding all this authority by sitting and smoking a big cigar. And then there was Hannah Arendt, who was sitting not on a chair but on the table, smoking one cigarette after another, and talking about Eichmann in Jeru­salem. The difference was evident. And I was won over, really, by the charms of Hannah Arendt . . . .

manfred henningsen: I remember, one morning, we were sitting in a smoke-filled office at a kind of assistant conference. And suddenly the secretary comes in and mumbles something, and Voegelin, with a big grin on his face, says, “Jürgen Kuczinski.” Jürgen Kuczinski, we couldn’t believe our ears!

Jürgen Kuczinski was the most famous East German intellectual alive. Then he comes in with his bad teeth, the most prominent East German intellectual, and the two of them were almost embracing each other! They had studied together in Wisconsin; they had known each other since ’24, ’25, and it seems that they had kept contact.

I don’t know what it means in Voegelin’s case, but the way he treated him was quite remarkable. You know, at that point, to have Jürgen Kuczinski in the University of Munich in your office talking to you–that was almost treason!

klaus-ekkehard bärsch: I knew the famous Russian thinker Alexander Zinoviev. When I told Voegelin that Zinoviev was living in Munich and that I knew him, Voegelin said, “I must meet him, can you make an appointment?” So, we went together to see Alexander Zinoviev, who was very famous at the time.

And Voegelin and Zinoviev talked about the end of the Soviet empire. Voegelin asked him, “What do you think?” And Zinoviev answered, “Well, only in a long, long time.” Voegelin asked, “Is it possible to gain a new spirit of opposition?” When Zinoviev said no, Voegelin asked why not.  Zinoviev made a conventional corporatist reply; he said, “If you cut off the head, another one will replace it, so it does not matter.” Voegelin said only, “hmm.”

He was very polite and very gentle to Zinoviev, but in my little car on the way home, he said, “No, Zinoviev is mistaken on this point.” And he prophesied that, in maybe ten years, there would be a new elite that would be maybe only half communist, and this new elite would change things from the top. He saw this at that time already.

Guests: Hans Jonas and Jacob Taubes

paul caringella: I remember the story of one of his critics, one who I think never put his criticisms into writing. In Munich, Hans Jonas came to visit one evening to talk with Eric. And Eric went to the elevator to meet Mr. Jonas, and Lissy could hear them, and then they came into the apartment and Mr. Jonas greeted Lissy; they went into Eric’s study and Lissy could hear them.

Then Lissy went in with some cookies, and Mr. Jonas was very nice. And Lissy came back out and could hear Mr. Jonas again. Then they came to go to the elevator, and Mr. Jonas said, “Good evening,” and then Lissy could hear them at the elevator. Finally, Lissy asked Eric when he came back, “What did this Mr. Jonas want?” And Eric said, “He doesn’t like what I’m doing.”

lissy voegelin: I heard them coming up in the elevator. Eric had just picked him up from the ground floor, you know, to get him up into elevator. And Mr. Jonas was talking all the time; he was talking and talking in a very loud voice. And he was mad, really. Then Eric went out, and said, “Well, nothing. Nothing happened.” And I said, “hmmm.”

Q. How did he interact with his guests when they would lead a seminar?

henningsen: When Michael Oakeshott was in Munich, I do not remember Eric and Oakeshott talking to each other in class about theoretical issues. Or when Voegelin had guests in his seminars, he would never engage them in questions; he would just let them talk. Hannah Arendt, for example: he let her talk. Jürgen Gebhardt would intervene and start a fight with her, but Eric would simply sit there and smoke a cigar and smile . . . .

But he didn’t engage people in discus­sion. Jacob Taubes couldn’t even provoke him when he said to him, “You know, I’ve always thought that you are a Gnostic.” Taubes said it to provoke him, but there was also something to it.

büttner: Taubes didn’t say it that way. Taubes was trying to bring Voegelin to see a point in his own work. I remember when Taubes gave a lecture on Hegel, and Voegelin expounded his thesis that Hegel was a Gnostic, that the Weltgeist was coming zu sich selbst in the person of Hegel, which was Gnostic.

Then Taubes very carefully showed Voegelin that what he was doing in many ways was the same thing! That is to say, the philosophy of order that had been corrupted after classical times has now been turned into an ideology in the nineteenth century, and in the critique of this development of Gnosticism, philosophy reestablishes itself, so to speak, as the superior knowledge that recognizes the Gnostic ideological structure in prior thought. In a way, then, Taubes was saying that Voegelin does the same thing structurally.

And there was absolute silence in the hall. Because it was obvious that Taubes was pointing very carefully to a very critical point in Voegelin’s work: to his speak­ing on the basis of superior knowledge. When it ended, Voegelin opened his arms and said,“Sehen Sie, Kinder, ich bin doch ein Gnostiker!” [See, children, I’m a Gnostic after all!] So, he accepted it and at the same time he didn’t accept it.

Voegelin’s Attitudes Toward Women Students

hedda herwig: Most people said he had no pedagogical skills, but I think quite the opposite; I think he was good. He seemed to be an autocrat; he seemed to be authoritarian and so on, so that people were provoked and attacked and irritated.

But the ones who stayed, I think, profited from his manner. On the other hand, there were always people who didn’t like him or said that he was inhuman, because he simply was not the type of man to say to students, “Well, you are nice, you are good.”

But you could talk to him after the lecture courses while he went down the halls. As he walked between two lectures, he was thankful if you came along and talked with him. Some people feared him, but I never had this fear, because I was a woman and he was very charming in his personal ways.

Not in all ways: he was not enthusiastic about feminist views, for example. But he accepted women who were intelligent. I always said to him, “Oh you, with your old-fashioned Austrian manners, you can be most charming.” Well, he was old-fashioned, and it was an interesting situation, because most of the other students feared him because he was so strict . . . .

Q. Did he have any women assistants?

henningsen: He had two female doctoral students, and I think they were the first two students that gave him the impression that women can think. He was really a male chauvinist if there ever was one. The last time I met him, in 1982, Lissy and Eric drove me to the bus stop and Lissy told him, “You are a male chauvinist. You are really an awful male chauvinist!” She rubbed it in, you know, and he was sitting in the back smiling. In a way, he was admitting he knew that.

But it was Hedda and Dagmar Herwig in Munich–and Hedda, I think, even more so than Dagmar. I remember when Hedda gave a paper on Locke’s concept of natural law: he was astonished, he was really surprised. Now, I think that simply says something about him and the sociology of the German university–and the American one to some extent, too . . . .

kathrin sitzler: The essential thing was not how one looked or whether one was par­ticularly feminine, but the intellect. There, he did not differentiate. As a girl or a woman, one did not have to be smarter than the men with him, which is the case with many, but women were entirely on par . . . .

Earning a Doctorate

hedda herwig: I got my doctorate one day before Voegelin went to America. I wrote on Freud and C. G. Jung. It was entitled, “Therapy of Mankind.”

Q. Did Voegelin like it?

Yes, yes, he did. It was very complicated at the beginning, because he proposed that I should work either on C. G. Jung or on Schelling. So, I went to read some Schelling, and I went to him and said, “No, I can’t, because it’s too dense.” I was just starting, I was twenty-two, so I said, “No, I would like to do C. G. Jung, because I studied him in psychology.”

Voegelin thought it would be possible to do something on Jung’s conception of the archetypes: he thought such a study might be good for something. I came to the conclu­sion that there was no experience behind the archetypes, that Jung’s concep­tion remained at the level of the symbols. I thought it didn’t ring true. Then I talked to Jacob Taubes, and he told me that Jung liked the Nazis at the beginning of the Nazi regime, and he sent me some unpublished interviews of his.

So, I changed everything! Voegelin was in America, because he was always one semester in America and one semester in Munich. When he came back, I had to say to him, “Well, I am very sorry, but I can’t write anything positive about C. G. Jung.” But I knew he would understand. So, I wrote the damn thing and he liked it.

 

Contributors

richard v. allen (interviewed May 3,1996, in Los Angeles) was a doctoral student of Voegelin in Munich. He was later instrumental in securing Voegelin a grant that became the Salvatori professorship at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. Having served in key posts in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, Alien is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an international business consultant. He lives in Denver and New Zealand.

claus-ekkehard bärsch (interviewed July 5,1997, in Manchester, England) was Voegelin’s student at the University of Munich, where he obtained both a law degree and a doctorate in political science. A well-known scholar of political religions, Bärsch taught political theory at the University of Duisburg until his retirement in 2006. In 1996, he founded the Institute for the Politology of Religion at Duisburg. Bärsch lives near Munich.

friedemann büttner (interviewed September 1, 1995, in Chicago and May 31,1999, in Berlin) was an undergraduate at the University of Munich when he first met Voegelin in 1958. A specialist in the history and culture of the Near East, he became a research assistant at the Institute for Political Science in 1964. A highly reputed scholar and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Free University of Berlin, he retired in August 2006. He lives in Berlin.

paul caringella (interviewed May 23,1995, in Mountain View, California) became Voegelin’s assistant in 1978 and provided Voegelin both scholarly and personal support until his death in 1985. Now a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Caringella is director of the Eric Voegelin Archive there. He lives in San Francisco.

jürgen gebhardt (interviewed April 27, 1996, in Nuremberg) was Voegelin’s senior research assistant at the Institute for Political Science in Munich. A highly reputed scholar and teacher at universities in Bochum and Erlangen, Gebhardt also founded the Eric Voegelin-Bibliothek at the Universität Erlangen-Niirnberg before retiring in 2002. He lives near Munich.

manfred henningsen (interviewed September 1, 1995, in Chicago) knew Voegelin first as his research assistant in Munich, then as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution in California. In 1970, Henningsen accepted a position at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he writes and teachest contemporary political theory.

dagmar herwig (interviewed June 5,1999, in Saarbriicken, Germany) was one of Voegelin’s doctoral students in Munich. After teaching political theory at several German universities, she went into the civil service. She held a high-ranking position in Saarland’s Ministry of Labor until her retirement in May 2006. Together with Manfred Hennigsen, she recently prepared Voegelin’s 1964 letures, Hilter und die Deutschen, for publication in Germany. She lives in Saarbrucken.

hedda herwig (interviewed June 29, 1997, in Diisseldorf) was one of Voegelin’s doctoral students at the University of Munich. An expert on C. G. Jung and issues in political psychology, she taught political philosophy at the Universities of Aachen and Duisburg. Now retired, Herwig lives in Munich.

michael hereth (interviewed June 15, 1999, in Hamburg) was one of Voegelin’s early students at the University of Munich. Later a member of the German Federal Parliament, he became a reputed Tocqueville scholar while teaching at universities in Bochum and Hamburg. Now retired, Hereth lives in Provence, France.

thomas hollweck (interviewed February 10, 1996, in Calgary) first knew Voegelin as an undergraduate student at the University of Munich, then came to know him well as a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution. Now a scholar and teacher of German literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Hollweck edited one volume of Voegelin’s correspondence and participated regularly at annual meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society.[ed note: Professor Hollweck passed away in March, 2011.]

hans maier (interviewed June 25, 1997, in Munich) was called in 1962 to serve alongside Voegelin as a full professor of political science at the Institute for Political Science in Munich. Following a sixteen-year term as the Bavarian minister of culture, he held the prestigious Romano Guardini Chair at the University of Munich. Retired since 1999, Maier lives in Munich.

michael naumann (interviewed July 6, 1999, in Berlin) studied under Voegelin at the University of Munich from 1963 to 1969, where he earned his doctorate. He later became a celebrated journalist and publisher, as well as the first minister of culture for a federal government of Germany. Naumann is presently publisher-editor of Die Zeit and co-editor of the journal Kursbuch. He lives in Hamburg and Berlin.

peter J. opitz (interviewed April 26,1996, in Munich) was one of Voegelin’s research assistants at the Institute for Political Science in Munich. A respected sinologist, he has also edited a number of translations of Voegelin’s work into German and founded the Eric-Voegelin-Archiv in Munich. Opitz is retired and lives near Munich.

florian sattler (interviewed April 21, 1996, in Munich) studied under Voegelin as a graduate student at the University of Munich. Now a successful journalist, he resides in Munich.

martin sattler (interviewed 5 July, 1997, in Manchester, England) attended Voegelin’s lecture courses and seminars at the University of Munich before gaining a law degree there. Now a jurist and professor of law, he teaches at a college in Mannheim and lives in Heidelberg.

tilo schabert (interviewed April 17, 1996, in Munich) studied under Voegelin at the University of Munich, where he received his Ph.D. under Voegelin’s direction. Schabert also assisted him as a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution. Now a highly reputed scholar and director of the Eranos conferences, Schabert teaches political science at the University of Erlangen. He lives near Munich.

kathrin sitzler (interviewed in German, July 16, 1999, in Munich) knew Voegelin as an undergraduate at the University of Munich, then in California, where she accompanied the Voegelins on an excursion to examine petroglyphs and bristle-cone pines in the Nevada desert. An expert on Hungarian culture, politics, and language, Sitzler works at the Siidost-Institut in Munich.

lissy voegelin (interviewed May 28 and 29, 1995, in Palo Alto) was Eric Voegelin’s wife from 1932 until his death in 1985. His lifelong companion, constant support, and frequent adviser, Lissy joined him in exile after the Anschluss and accompanied him in all relocations up to their final move to Palo Alto in 1969. Lissy Voegelin remained in Palo Alto until her death in 1996.

klaus vondung (interviewed April 24,1996, in Siegen) first knew Voegelin as an undergraduate in Munich, then worked more closely with him during his two-year fellowship at the Hoover Institution. A recognized Voegelin scholar and researcher of political religions, Vondung teaches literature at the University of Siegen in Siegen, Germany.

 

This excerpt is from Voegelin Recollected: Conversations of a Life (University of Missouri Press, 2007); also see  “Voegelin in Baton Rouge: Parts One, Two, and Three,” “Voegelin at Notre Dame,” “Voegelin and his Contemporaries,” and “Voegelin Recollected.”

 

Barry Cooper and Jodi Bruhn

Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary; Jodi Bruhn is the Director of Stratéjuste Consulting, based in Ottawa, Canada. They are authors of Voegelin Recollected: Conversations of a Life (Missouri, 2007).

Back To Top