James J. Sheehan Biography

By David Blackbourn, Harvard University
From the General Meeting Booklet, 2006 AHA Annual Meeting

James J. Sheehan, Dickason Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, is a remarkably wide-ranging historian who has helped to shape our understanding of modern Germany. For forty years, in monographs, articles that invite new trains of thought, and a general history of Germany from 1770 to 1866 that sets standards for the genre, he has been unfailingly reflective, taking on big questions and rejecting simple answers. Historians always disclose themselves in their writing, and anyone reading Jim Sheehan’s work would form an accurate idea of the person behind it: perceptive, urbane, liberal-minded, and short on self-importance. That last quality, one that impressed me immediately when I met him twenty-five years ago, has remained constant as his reputation has grown. A close friend and fellow historian of Germany, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, has praised Jim’s undogmatic openness to new problems and his “irenic temperament.” Let me add that he can also be very funny, in the dry, laconic style often found in people who are morally and intellectually serious but refuse to take themselves too seriously.

James John Sheehan was born in San Francisco on May 31, 1937, to James B. Sheehan and Sally (Walsh) Sheehan. His family was Irish on both sides, immigrants from the time of the Gold Rush. His grandfather owned a lady’s hat shop in the city and his father sold Otis elevators. An uncle active in local politics was responsible for the distinctive “oriental” street lights in Chinatown. “For his family ‘back east’ meant Reno,” I am told. Jim himself is very much a San Franciscan, educated in a variety of schools in the city (beginning with the Ladies of the Sacred Heart) before attending Stanford University as an undergraduate. He gained his A.B. in 1958, then crossed the Bay to do graduate work at Berkeley with Carl Schorske. In 1964, Ph.D. in hand, he became assistant professor at Northwestern University, where he would teach for fifteen years, becoming an associate professor in 1967 and full professor in 1971. Jim belonged to what we can now see as a kind of bridge generation, born a decade earlier than the baby boomers who would become historians of Germany in the 1970s (my own cohort), and as a result more directly influenced by German émigré historians and by Americans whose interest in Germany had been fired by service during World War II.

Jim Sheehan’s first book, a revised version of his dissertation, appeared in 1966: The Career of Lujo Brentano: A Study of Liberalism and Social Reform in Imperial Germany (University of Chicago Press, 1966). Brentano was a left-leaning liberal, an academic economist who advocated free trade, an Anglophile who admired English trade unions, and an advocate of social reform. He was, in short, a man at odds with many tendencies of his age, which is the central motif of the book. Brentano died, unhappy, in 1931, and the dedication of a memorial statue was—as we are told on the final page of this elegant work—interrupted by Nazi students. The Career of Lujo Brentano is a biography (it prompted Jim to remark that writing biography was “like being stranded with someone on a desert island”), but it is a work in the life-and-times mode. The book deals thoughtfully with the issues of academic “unwordliness” and political engagement then being raised by scholars such as Gordon Craig and Fritz Stern. It moves beyond the old moralistic categories of liberal “failure” that were still influential at the time. Most of all—and here the influence of the Berkeley émigré historian Hans Rosenberg is evident—it addressed questions that would increasingly become central to debate in the 1970s. For historians of my generation, the Brentano book was an important English-language contribution to a series of key issues: Bismarck’s political legacy, the position of liberals, buffeted between the social question and the authoritarian Prussian state, the liberal response to German imperialism, the role played by economic interest groups in Wilhelmine Germany, and the blockage of political reform in the years before 1914.

What the book did not talk about was German Catholics, or liberals and the Prussian Kulturkampf. The omission may seem remarkable at first blush, for here was a sharp-witted product of the Sacred Heart and St Ignatius casting his eye over a man whose uncle Clemens transcribed the visions of the nun Anna Katharine Emmerich (later to be one of Mel Gibson’s major sources for The Passion of the Christ) and whose brother Franz was an ordained priest and professor who left the priesthood and the church because of his opposition to papal infallibility. It is, of course, remarkable only with the wisdom of hindsight. Religion was still, in the 1960s, like the famous dog in the Sherlock Holmes story that failed to bark. Jim was, as I know to my own good fortune, quicker than most of his contemporaries to spot this large gap and to emphasize the importance of religion in nineteenth-century Germany.

The Brentano book was followed in 1978 by a major history—still the major history in English—of nineteenth-century German liberalism. German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century (University of Chicago Press) is empirically rich and analytically astute. Jim plots the changing fortunes of German liberalism in an account that is organized around three related themes: the relationship of the liberal movement to society, politics, and the state. From its beginnings, liberalism was the creed of the educated and propertied middle ranks of German society, defining itself against absolutism and privilege, but also against the lower orders who lacked “independence” and were feared as the potential prey of reactionary and revolutionary “demagogues.” The “subtle interplay of hope and anxiety” Jim Sheehan describes was intensified by the experience of 1848 and the emergence of new social issues. The response to organized labor was slow and more than faintly patrician. By the end of the nineteenth century, as landowners and industrialists, shopkeepers and clerks organized to further their interests, liberal claims to embody universal values within a harmonious society of citizens looked increasingly threadbare. Liberal anxiety about “progress” deepened, although Sheehan argued persuasively that the phenomenon of “cultural despair” should not be exaggerated.

The book is particularly good on the narrowing of liberal political hopes, as they divided over the suffrage and responded sluggishly to the new age of mass politics. The handling of national, state, and municipal electoral politics is superb. This material leads to one of the strongest theses of the book. Liberals, argues Sheehan, found themselves caught between “people” and “state,” increasingly coming to see the latter less as unwelcome policeman and censor, more as an engine of economic growth, a force to counter parochialism, and a guarantor of law and order. The book ends by suggesting that the obverse of declining liberal vitality at the end of the century was the power of a more truculent nationalism to unite an otherwise divided and demoralized movement. More than that, the erosion of liberal popular support created a political space occupied by radical nationalist groups, led by restless mavericks who developed a political style that prefigured the later success of National Socialism.

Jim Sheehan's book offers a beautifully composed snapshot of a historiography in state of flux. For all its subtlety and shadings, it contains big arguments. My own copy is full of marginal marks, queries, and youthful annotations. German Liberalism remains a book to think with. We have learned much more about German liberalism since 1978, not least from following up Jim Sheehan’s insights. We know more about associational life, enough to provide convincing evidence about the high value that liberals placed on civic engagement. (Jim himself never bought the argument about civic inertia as a fateful German characteristic. The problem was not what we now call “bowling alone,” but the fragmentation that accompanied the spread of associational life.) We also know much more about liberal party organization and electoral politics, and the verdict remains as ambiguous today as it was in the late 1970s. Liberals now seem rather less patrician, quicker on their feet and more flexible in continuing to invent cross-class alliances, but the great volume of work that has explored the significance of gender and ethnicity, religion and regional identity, has only underscored in new ways the problem of “universal” liberal claims to which Jim Sheehan directed our attention.

Reviewing the book in 1979, I welcomed Jim Sheehan’s success in “rescuing his subject from the tyranny of hindsight.” Its refusal of the teleology that has plagued modern German history-writing is a major strength of the book and a reason why it has stood up so well. All the more striking, then, to encounter a moment at the end when the Zeitgeist of the 1970s peeps through and the “bankruptcy” of liberalism is summarized as “its failure to provide the ideas and institutions with which Germans could understand and master the problems posed by their nation's long journey to modernity.” Ah, that long journey to modernity—how fondly we remember it. The question today might be: What if the liberals were not so much pushed aside by illiberal forces, but themselves helped to incubate ideas that were undoubtedly modern but not at all benign—a belief in the superiority of German Kultur, national efficiency, social imperialism, hygiene as a form of social engineering, the future as technocratic dream?

A question like that takes its meaning from the large, contentious question that lurks behind it. How do we make the link between the “long journey to modernity” and the central tragedy of modern German history? Was National Socialism the antithesis of modernity, or did it embody the “pathology of modernity” (to use Detlev Peukert’s provocative phrase)? The historiographical pendulum has clearly swung toward the second view over the last twenty years, although it is the hybrid, contradictory combination of the two elements that arguably remains the true hallmark of National Socialism. The stakes for our view of liberalism are high. It makes a difference whether liberals “failed” in the sense that they became politically impotent, or bore more direct responsibility for policies that were implemented after 1933.

An early Jim Sheehan article can be seen, in retrospect, as opening up a promising new line of debate on these questions. “Liberalism and the City” (Past and Present 51) was published in 1971. The article had two arguments about the late nineteenth century. It showed, first, that municipal government remained a bastion of liberal politics in Wilhelmine Germany, because undemocratic franchises sheltered liberals from popular opinion. The second and potentially more far-reaching argument concerned what liberals did within this sheltered zone. A generation of urban mayors, broadly liberal but hostile to what they viewed as damaging “party-political” conflict, established a pattern of technocratic, problem-solving municipal administration. This strand of bourgeois-liberal government, which persisted across the divide of the First World War, is very familiar to us now, one aspect of a persistent German leaning towards “apolitical politics” in the decades between 1890 and the 1930s. Later historians—including Jim Sheehan's student, Kevin Repp—have opened up this subject by identifying a broader bourgeois-reformist milieu in Wilhelmine German, men (and a few women, like Gertrud Bäumer) who made German cities almost a laboratory for finding ways to cope with modern times. Navigating between left and right, they tried to fuse a variety of initiatives into a new synthesis: land reform and Garden City movement, cultural outreach to the masses and anti-alcohol campaigns, eugenics and welfare. No straight line linked this broadly liberal milieu to 1933, but we can hardly overlook how many of these attempts at synthesis would be appropriated and reworked by the NSDAP.

“Liberalism and the City” was just one of the thought-provoking articles that have punctuated James Sheehan’s career, summarizing a debate or laying the groundwork for new thinking. A good example is his wide-ranging, Weberian analysis of “Conflict and Cohesion among German Elites in the Nineteenth Century,” published in a 1972 collection edited by Robert Bezucha (Modern European Social History, D.C. Heath, 1972). Probably the most important of all these articles, still widely read by graduate students, was published in 1981, two years after Jim Sheehan returned to Stanford from Northwestern. “What Is German History? Reflections on the Role of the Nation in German History and Historiography” (Journal of Modern History 53) is a beautifully argued case against the twin dangers of Prussocentrism and teleology. Whether arguing about the complexity of language communities in central Europe, the tendency of regional economic development to cross political borders, or the role played by Austria in German politics right down to 1866, Sheehan sets out to subvert the view that German history was moving inexorably towards a political destination called Bismarckian Lesser Germany. This is an article of power and grace, which ranges comparatively over French and American as well as German history. It also marks a break with Jim’s own previous writing, especially the residual attachment to modernization-driven arguments.

“What Is German History?” was influential because it anticipated a new way of thinking. The article came out two years before Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and the essay collection on The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. If E.P. Thompson’s “enormous condescension of posterity” was the phrase that launched a thousand works of social-cultural history, then Anderson, Hobsbawm, and Ranger between them helped to float an armada of books on the “imagined” and the “invented.” Twenty years on, the 1980s remain in the memory as wonderfully emancipating times for historians (in my memory, at least; not everyone will remember them that way). Teleological straitjackets were loosened, socio-economic explanations of history were challenged from a new direction, and the balance between structure and contingency was redrawn. Gender history flourished in this new historical environment. So (perhaps less predictably) did the study of nations and nationalism, which acquired a new impetus with the growing interest in identities, especially the multiple, overlapping identities that are such a hallmark of modern historiography, sometimes to the point of self-caricature. Looking at the interplay of the regional, the national, and the transnational—the simultaneity of the “locally confined” and the “internationally extended,” as Jim Sheehan put it in his article—also turned out to be enormously productive. It can be seen as an exercise in what Jacques Revel has called “playing with scales.”

“What Is German History?” was a five-finger exercise for James Sheehan’s masterpiece. German History 1770–1866 appeared in 1989 (Oxford University Press). Even more than his other works, it defies easy summary. Isaiah Berlin has made us familiar with that cryptic fragment from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things—the hedgehog one big thing.” Jim Sheehan has always been a fox. It is in a book of this kind that breadth of interests and generosity of mind really pay off, as they do here: in the unequalled discussion of literature and ideas, the empathy shown for diverse human conditions and experiences, the ability to communicate the strangeness of the past. Jim sustains a fruitful tension between the forward drive of what we know happened and the open-endedness of history as contemporaries lived it. The architecture of the book, an expression of its analytical structure, emphasizes three main forces: the territorial state, the expansion of economic activity and social mobility, and the emergence of print culture broadly defined. But these “forces” are connected to each other, which is the hardest trick to turn.

Consider, as a counter-example, Theodor Zeldin’s contribution on modern France to the same Oxford History of Modern Europe series, published in the 1970s. It eventually grew into two bulky volumes: Ambition, Love and Politics and Intellect, Taste and Anxiety. This was not exactly what the publisher had in mind, and the material from the two books was promptly reissued in no fewer than five paperback volumes. That meant combing the chapter headings from the original two volumes to come up with further nouns that could be turned into titles. (The Oxford University Press chose Anger, Pride, Corruption, and Hypocrisy—this was, after all, French history.) Much of what Zeldin had to say was brilliantly original, and perhaps he could be forgiven for the fact that the Paris Commune disappeared entirely somewhere among the seven deadly sins. The real problem was that ambition, love, and politics did not talk to each other. Opening up the unfamiliar and heterogeneous was bought at a high price.

Making connections is important, and one prerequisite is the kind of reflectivess about how a narrative is constructed that has always been a Jim Sheehan hallmark. In the same year that his German History appeared, a group of German historians held a symposium in Chicago, the results of which later appeared as a special double edition of Central European History. The title of the special issue was “German Histories: Challenges in Theory, Practice, Technique,” and one question it asked was whether there could in fact be synthetic histories in the era of the decentered subject, when the days of grand narrative had apparently gone. Konrad Jarausch and Michael Geyer, editors of the special issue, saw the challenge as making sense of the “interacting multiplicity of stories.” And they had their own metaphor for what this might entail: a form of history that could “interweave heterogeneity,” offer “interwoven narratives,” and allow for the “interweaving of heterogeneous worlds.” We get the point: it’s about weaving. So should we welcome Jim Sheehan’s book as the work of a master-weaver? Or do we say, as the academic joke has it: That’s all very well in practice, but does it work in theory? Actually, it works pretty well in theory, too. The book exemplifies the same qualities its author finds in Johann Droysen: “self-consciousness about the necessary relationship between method and subject-matter.” I am thinking of the unshowy reflectiveness (like the question that opens the chapter on 1848: “why do people rebel?”) and the repeated willingness to pose counter-factuals.

While he wrote his own book, Jim must surely have given some thought to the work already embarked on by his good friend, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, whose Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte now extends to four volumes and more than 4,000 pages. It is a great work of a different kind, a book to walk around with admiration, to attempt to lift only under strict medical supervision, magnificent, oddly proportioned, indispensable, a book in which the parts often do not speak to each other—and yet, as John Breuilly once memorably noted, a classic of modernist transparency, a work that feels as if the scaffolding is still up and tools are still lying about, showing where the work has been done, and what kind of work it was. Jim Sheehan is too unobtrusive a craftsman to leave scaffolding and tools on site, but he still tells you how his building has been put together and he certainly does not pretend it has built itself. That differentiates him from another great stylist, Gordon Craig, author of the successor volume in the Oxford series and Jim’s predecessor at Stanford. There is no scaffolding around Craig’s book, not even a blueprint. There are gains for the reader, but losses as well.

German historians at Stanford seem to follow a common trajectory. Wherever they begin, they always migrate towards culture in the end. It must be something in the balmy Peninsular air. Gordon Craig and Peter Paret began with the Prussian army and made that journey towards literary culture and the visual arts, respectively. Jim Sheehan had a shorter distance to travel. Museums in the German Art World: From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2000) pursues many of the same concerns that were evident in the Oxford History, although now sharply focused on one institution as it changed over time. Museums have attracted plenty of interest in recent years. There is a good reason why so many historians in the 1980s and 1990s went on a long march through the institutions—institutions that included not only the museum but also the university, the psychiatric hospital, the penitentiary, and the scientific laboratory. It was because we had learned to think about power and ideas differently, to look at where these were located and how they did their work: how do museums represent power, how do psychiatric hospitals construct difference, how do experiments end?

Jim Sheehan is concerned with the German art museum from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. He places it within a variety of contexts: changing political structures, patterns of elite patronage, the emergence of specialized bureaucracies and new academic norms. He examines ideas about art from Winckelmann to the era of high modernism, and he discusses the evolving idea of the public. But this is not one of those cultural histories in which the subject matter dissolves into a series of contexts, where the foreground is dominated by the background. This is a history of the art museum that always keeps its gaze directed firmly on the institution itself, the artworks it contained and the architecture of the buildings in which they were housed. The last point deserves emphasis, for Jim Sheehan's assured handling of architecture—a talent already evident in his Oxford History—is surprisingly rare among historians.

Jim has repeatedly shown an instinct for being in the right place at the right time. It was never more evident than in his own annus mirabilis, 1989. It was the year when his German History appeared, and on September 1 (Sedan Day) he married Peggy Anderson, a fellow historian of Germany at Berkeley. Later that fall Jim was in Berlin to witness the seismic shift that brought down the Berlin Wall, while the present writer took his place at Stanford for the year and experienced a different kind of seismic movement: the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 1989. But it is not only in his sabbatical arrangements that Jim Sheehan has shown good timing. Again and again his writing has captured the historical pulse of the moment. In addition to the books and articles there were edited collections that put down markers, like a 1973 volume on industrialization and industrial labor in nineteenth-century Europe. Three years later he published a collection on imperial Germany, which brought together key articles by leading historians (they included Hans Rosenberg, John Röhl, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Wolfgang J. Mommsen) that defined a rapidly changing field.

These books also demonstrate Jim Sheehan’s range. He has worked on German history from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. He has been as much at home in the country as the city, covered elections and art museums with the same expertise. In 1991 he co-edited a volume on German historians who fled to the United States from the Third Reich (a subject close to his heat: Jim has always credited émigré scholars as a major influence on his work, and on his jargon-free prose style). Three years later he co-edited a German book on the end of an earlier Reich, the Holy Roman Empire. He contributed articles on “Democracy” and “Political History” to the Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2002, and he is currently writing about war and the European state in the twentieth century. Is there anything he has not written about? Werewolves and vampires, perhaps? Wrong. In 1991 he co-edited an essay collection that began life as a conference at Stanford, The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, Machines (University of California Press). Perhaps the conference stirred memories of his youth, when (improbable though it sounds) he hunted mountain lions—with what success, the historical record is silent. We do know that Jim contributed introductions to each of the two parts of The Boundaries of Humanity, plus a coda. From his very first line, which discusses William Blake’s “Adam Naming the Beasts,” these contributions are vintage Sheehan, moving easily from the Book of Genesis to modern sociobiology. Their central theme is the human-animal relationship, not forgetting the “special place in the literature of horror for creatures dwelling in an intermediate zone between the species—werewolves, vampires, and beasts in human shape.” From Lujo Brentano to beasts in human shape: few historians of modern Germany have shown such range.

The range of subjects on which his students have worked is equally wide, and not by chance. Talk to former advisees, and they will tell you that Jim was open to the widest spectrum of subjects and approaches. As one of them put it, “he was totally uninterested in producing acolytes or copies of himself.” His only requirement of the dissertation topic was that it be “germinal but terminal,” a mantra that deserves wider circulation. Jim has always held his students to high standards and made them feel that he really cared about their success. The greatest gift he has given is his example. Former students always mention his absolute integrity, his scholarly rectitude. His advisees also received (and receive) a sense of what scholarly exchange is supposed to be, group discussions that (as one former student recalls) were “models of what the joys of the intellectual/academic life could be: serious thinking combined with great pleasure in ideas, and informed at all times by a very high mutual respect.” Neither this, nor the many reports of his small kindnesses and large fund of humor, will surprise those who know Jim Sheehan as a friend or colleague. His books and articles on German history have made a difference; so has his mentoring and his example. We look forward to his next book. For who better to tackle war and the modern state than a historian who combines moral seriousness and generosity of mind with a distinctive, laconic voice?


“What it Means to be a State: States and Violence in Twentieth-Century Europe.” Journal of Modern European History 1, no. 1 (2003), 11–23.

“The German Renaissance in America.” In The Italian Renaissance in the Twentieth Century, edited by A.J. Grieco, et al. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2002.

Museums in the German Art World: From the End of the Old Regime to the Rise of Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

“Aesthetic Theory and Architectural Practice: Schinkel's Museum in Berlin.” In From the Berlin Museum to the Berlin Wall: Essays on the Cultural and Political History of Modern Germany, edited by David Wetzel. Westview: Praeger, 1996.

“Nation und Staat. Deutschland als imaginierte Gemeinschaft.” In Nation und Gesellschaft in Deutschland. Historische Essays, edited by Manfred Hettling and Paul Nolte. Munich: Beck Verlag, 1996.

“The German States and the European Revolution.” In Revolution and the Meaning of Freedom in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Isser Woloch. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

German History, 1770–1866. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620–1960. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

The Career of Lujo Brentano: A Study of Liberalism and Social Reform in Imperial Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

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