CAS Exclusive: “Professor Robert A. Kann: Historian, Scholar, Mentor”

by: Bertram M. Gordon Professor Emeritus, History, Mills College
Archepiscopal Palace Vienna
Archepiscopal Palace Vienna, taken in July 1967
Join us for the upcoming Kann Memorial Lecture on Monday, September 21 with distinguished scholar Tara Zahra.

At the American Historical Association conference in January 2020, CAS Editor and historian Igor Tchoukarine invited me to write an article for the Austrian Studies Newsmagazine about Professor Robert A. Kann, my doctoral thesis advisor and mentor during my graduate studies at Rutgers University during the 1960s. It is both an honor and a pleasure to write about Professor Kann (referring to him by anything more informal would be a bit like referring to Emperor Franz Josef as “Franzel”).

I shall always be grateful to Professor Kann for his guidance and help during the research and writing of my dissertation and for his having helped me launch a 50+ year career in higher education. Anyone studying the history of Austria and Central Europe will be familiar with his work and we are all indebted to the University of Minnesota for its support of the Center for Austrian Studies on its campus in the years since its establishment in 1977.

Professor Kann’s life and academic career are discussed in an essay by the late Stanley B. Winters, also one of his doctoral students, who focused on Kann’s life and career in America and whose article was published in the Austrian History Yearbook in 1981.[1] Kann arrived in the United States with a broad knowledge of history together with highly developed research skills, having studied jurisprudence at the University of Vienna and having practiced law in Austria prior to the Nazi takeover.[2] He continued his studies, earning a Bachelor of Library Science degree at Columbia University in 1940 and a doctorate in history there in 1946. In America, he focused on the issues of nationality that had so heavily influenced his own experiences coming of age in the Habsburg Empire and which, transformed after 1918, continued to play so significant a role in Central European and, indeed, world history. His doctoral work, developed and strengthened, ultimately grew into his two volume The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Empire (published in 1950 by Columbia University Press).[3] As Winters wrote: “It is rare when a scholar's first book establishes its author in the front rank of his field, and it is rarer still when the book remains a standard work for the balance of his lifetime.[4]

In 1947 Kann joined the History Department at the Newark campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey and subsequently offered courses in the Rutgers New Brunswick graduate program, where I later had the opportunity to study with him. He was able return to visit Vienna in 1950 and again for research and as Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna in 1973-1974.[5] In 1976 he retired from Rutgers and moved back to Vienna, where he lived and worked until his death in 1981. As Winters notes, shortly before his death he had been awarded the title of Honorary Professor at the University of Vienna.[6] Discussing Professor Kann’s many professional activities, Winters added: “Nor would Kann allow the press of his own professional activities to reduce the attention he paid to his students,”[7] a sentiment that completely matched my own experience.

I was attracted to his work by my own historical progression as he had been drawn to earlier works by his own historical background. Growing up in Brooklyn, I remember always having been interested in history, staying up at night as a young boy reading the World Book Encyclopedia cover-to-cover. This interest expanded into Europe during my undergraduate years at Brooklyn College. I was drawn specifically to the history of Austria, and especially to what appeared to a young student as the glory of fin-de-siècle Vienna, a Central European capital that had been so heavily damaged first by the Nazis and then by the Cold War division of the Continent into East and West. During the 1950s and early 60s, the Second World War and the experience of Nazi Germany was not too distant in the past, the Cold War was in full bloom, and Europe seemed to be the center of the world. My “nostalgia,” for lack of a better word, was captured years later in an article by the essayist Olivier Guez, who in 2013 wrote:

In important ways, the Europe of 1913 was more cosmopolitan and European than the Europe of today. Ideas and nationalities mingled and converged in a hotbed of creativity. …  And there were large communities of cosmopolitan expatriates — “passeurs” between cultures, notably urbanized Jews, as well as German minorities, scattered throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Though prejudice ran deep and they were harshly mistreated in many places, in others they could identify as citizens of a broader European group, not merely the land they inhabited, and aspire to respect and comfort.[8]

By my senior year, I had decided that I wanted to pursue an academic career in European history, focusing on Austria, and studying with Professor Kann. I was already familiar with his Multinational Empire as well as his A Study in Austrian Intellectual History: From Late Baroque to Romanticism (published in 1960 by Frederick A. Praeger Press). The logical next step was to apply for admission to the Rutgers graduate program. Upon my acceptance to the program, I wrote to him, telling him of my interest in Austrian history and expressing the hope that I might study with him.[9]

During my first, or Master’s, year at Rutgers, however, Professor Kann was on sabbatical leave obliging me to postpone his Central European history seminar. He invited me to come visit him at his home in Princeton, where he received me most graciously. I had harbored fears that he might leave Rutgers for another position but was much relieved when I saw his living room wall lined from top to bottom with books and realized that he was unlikely to be moving away anytime soon.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that although most of my instructors and fellow students lined up in varying degrees on the political left, I had become interested in what I saw as the “other side,” the Right, and its popular support often among the European lower middle classes, whether in Central Europe or later France. After finishing my required courses at Rutgers, I turned to the career of Karl Lueger, Vienna’s Mayor from 1897 to 1910, whose populist anti-Semitism of those times was pitched to the lower middle classes and who also served as a model for the young Adolf Hitler.

Professor Kann advised me that there was already an extensive literature on Lueger and the Christian Social movement. He suggested that I look at an earlier period and so I wrote my doctoral thesis on the Catholic clergy and their attitudes toward the emerging working classes during the first half of the 19th century when Vienna and its surrounding area were beginning to industrialize. With Kann’s support I was able to obtain a Fulbright fellowship for study and research in Vienna for the academic year 1966-67, giving me the opportunity to dig through reports and letters from bishops and priests, held in the Archdiocesan Archives, some of which were still in disarray having been moved during the Second World War. Located in the Episcopal Palace, next to Saint Stephan’s Cathedral in the heart of Vienna, the Archdiocesan Archive was my main source of research. Professor Kann also put me in contact with Professor Erika Weinzierl of the University of Vienna, who was also most helpful in suggesting resources and opening channels for my research. As it turned out, most of the clerical reports either ignored the urban workers or complained about their failure to attend church services.

In the summer of 1967 I returned from Austria and taught as a lecturer at Brooklyn College for two years while finishing my dissertation, “Catholic Social Thought in Austria, 1815-1848,” continually encouraged and helped with visits to Professor Kann in Princeton.[10] Having my doctorate, it was time to look for a more permanent position. With Professor Kann’s continued recommendations and help, I was able to find a position at Mills College in Oakland, California, where I have spent the last half-century. Over the years, my research focus shifted geographically from Austria to World War II France but I remain interested in the Kleinbürgertum and the political Right. My work continues to be informed by the quest to understand human history and the research techniques and methodologies I learned from Professor Kann, a true mentor in every sense.

Bertram M. Gordon is Professor Emeritus - History, at Mills College in Oakland, California. He is the author, most recently, of War Tourism: Second World War France from Defeat and Occupation to the Creation of Heritage (Cornell University Press, 2018). Prior to that, he was the author of Collaborationism in France during the Second World War (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1980); and the editor of The Historical Dictionary of World War II France: The Occupation, Vichy and the Resistance, 1938-1946 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998).

[1] Stanley B. Winters, “The Forging of a Historian: Robert A. Kann in America, 1939-1976,” Austrian History Yearbook, 17 (January 1981).

[2] Ibid., p. 4.

[3] Ibid., pp. 5-7. See also Robert A. Kann, The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Empire, 2 volumes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950).

[4] Winters, op. cit., p. 7.

[5] Ibid., p. 18.

[6] This title gave him lifetime honorary teaching privileges at the University. Ibid., p. 18.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Olivier Guez, “Are There Any Europeans Left?” New York Times, Opinion, 2 March 2013

[9] My own early history and interest in Professor Kann’s work is mentioned in my essay, “The Other Side: Investigating the Collaborationists in World War II France,” in Manu Braganca and Fransiska Louwagie, eds., Ego-histories of France and the Second World War: Writing Vichy (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

[10] With Professor Kann’s support, my dissertation received Honorable Mention in the 1969 competition for the Austrian History Award, sponsored by the Austrian Institute in New York. A summary of my dissertation was published later as “The Challenge of Industrialization: The Catholic Church in and around Vienna, 1815-1848,” Austrian History Yearbook, 9-10 (1973-74): 123-142.

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