In Memoriam: Theodore H. Von Laue
Paul Ropp and Douglas Little, December 2000
From the In Memoriam column in the December 2000 Perspectives
Theodore H. Von Laue, professor emeritus of history at Clark University, died on January 22, 2000, in Worcester, Massachusetts, following a brief illness. For 83 years, Theo lived what might be called a quintessential 20th-century life. He was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1916 in the midst of World War I, the son of Max Von Laue, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Theo grew up in the shadow of a crumbling Weimar Republic, practicing the violin while his father chatted with Albert Einstein and hiking in the Alps while Adolf Hitler waited for his main chance.
After a year at the University of Freiburg, in 1937 he headed across the Atlantic to study in America because, as Theo told an interviewer many years later, "[my father] did not want me growing up in a country run by gangsters." He earned a BA and PhD from Princeton during World War II, and then went on to teach at Swarthmore, the University of California at Riverside, and Washington University in St. Louis before being appointed Frances and Jacob Hiatt Professor of European History at Clark University, where he made history come alive in the classroom from 1970 until his retirement in 1982.
Theo was also an extraordinarily gifted and adventurous scholar who was forever setting new challenges for himself. After finishing his doctoral dissertation on Bismarck's social legislation, he chose not to publish it and moved instead to an entirely new project, a brief intellectual biography of Leopold von Ranke that demolished the popular notion of Rankean "scientific objectivity" and demonstrated the importance of romanticism in the Rankean approach. Then Theo changed gears again, this time from German to Russian history, learning Russian along the way. The result was a comprehensive history of Count Sergei Witte's industrialization of Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Increasingly concerned to make his research relevant to the solution of current world problems at the height of the Cold War, Theo wrote his most famous and influential book, Why Lenin? Why Stalin? which explained the rise of these leaders as part of the logical imperative of modernization and industrialization in a state and society playing catch-up with western Europe. Then, in search of even bigger topics, Theo "re-tooled" once again, and began studying the modernization process of the entire world, from a broadly comparative perspective. The result, The Global City, written two decades before anyone heard of the Internet, anticipated the very themes that preoccupy so many today: the accelerating pace of change and accumulation of specialized knowledge in the modern world, the increasing integration of the globe into one complex system, and the intensity of cultural and psychological tensions that result when vastly different cultures are brought into close contact by ever-expanding technologies.
Theo maintained and deepened that broad perspective in his final big book, The World Revolution of Westernization. This was the culmination of a lifetime of close observation of a complex world by a complex mind. William H. McNeill, the great global historian from the University of Chicago, called The World Revolution of Westernization "a fine and wise book—wise in a way few books are. "Finally, just four years ago, Theo returned briefly to Soviet history, as he and his wife, Angela, together wrote the text for Faces of a Nation, a stunning book of photographs of Soviet Russia by Dmitri Baltermants.
While Theo's professional achievements were remarkable, his qualities as a human being were even more remarkable. There was about him a generosity of spirit, an unselfishness that has become all too rare in academic life. He was a good listener, the sort of colleague who always seemed more interested in your work than his. And he always tackled problems with a blend of humanity and humor. Beneath the self-deprecating wit, however, lay a quiet sense of inner conviction that almost always led Theo to translate his ideas into action. An intensely private man who seldom talked about his Quaker beliefs, few realized that he helped launch the anti-war movement at Washington University in St. Louis, that he marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, and that he worked tirelessly for nuclear disarmament through the Soviet Sister Cities project in Worcester.
In this age of self-promotion and conspicuous consumption, Theo always preferred the simple life. Well into his 70s, he continued to climb mountains, pick wild blueberries, and cut his own firewood. Theo liked to say that he taught history not merely as the best way to defeat T.V. but also as a means of personal salvation. Growing up in Germany between the world wars and then watching the Nazis tear Europe apart from his perch on this side of the Atlantic, Theo developed a deeply tragic view of the past, but he never lost faith in humankind's ability to build a better world. In short, Theo Von Laue was living proof that it is possible to be a successful academic and still remain a decent human being. He truly was a good friend, a good colleague, and a good man. He is survived by his wife Angela, two daughters, and two grandchildren.
—Paul Ropp and Douglas Little