Werner Thomas Angress (1920-2010)
James J. Sheehan, December 2010
Historian of Weimar politics, and Jews and German society
Werner Angress was born in Berlin on June 27, 1920. He grew up in a comfortable middle-class family of assimilated German Jews. After the Nazis took power in 1933, his life was shadowed by the darkening cloud of anti-Semitism and the growing sense that Germany, the country with which he continued to identify, was no longer his. As a teenager, Angress sought refuge at Gross Breesen, a farming community near Berlin where young Jews learned the agricultural skills that were supposed to prepare them for emigration. Here, under the leadership of the community’s charismatic leader, Curt Bondy, he formed friendships that would last throughout his long and eventful life. In 1937, the Angress family fled Germany. Two years later, Werner left for the United States while the rest of his family remained in Amsterdam. His mother and two brothers survived the war in hiding; his father, arrested by Gestapo after the German invasion of the Netherlands, died in Auschwitz.
In America, Angress worked on a farm in Virginia. When he applied for citizenship, he changed his middle name from Karl to Thomas and from then on he would be known as Tom to most of his friends. Drafted into the army in 1941, he was trained as an interrogator at Camp Ritchie (he is featured in the film, The Ritchie Boys, about this remarkable institution), and parachuted (his first jump) into France with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day. Despite his extraordinarily youthful appearance and rather small stature, Angress was a tough and resourceful soldier who was eventually promoted to Master Sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. In May 1945, he drove a borrowed jeep to Amsterdam, where he was reunited with his mother and brothers, from whom he had heard nothing since the beginning of the war.
Angress got his BA in history from Wesleyan University and his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked with Raymond J. Sontag. He taught at Berkeley and then, for 25 years, at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook.
Angress’s first book, based on his Berkeley dissertation, was Stillborn Revolution: The Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921–23 (Princeton Press, 1963, translated into German as Die Kampfzeit der KPD, 1921–23 and published by Droste Verlag in 1973). Deeply researched and forcefully argued, Stillborn Revolution traces the German Communist Party’s difficult evolution as it tried to come to terms with the failure of its revolutionary aspirations, the political vacuum left by the murder of its most effective leaders, and the growing influence of the Soviet Union. After 50 years, Stillborn Revolution remains the standard work on German Communism in the early Weimar Republic.
Although Angress continued to publish articles on Weimar politics, his interests turned more and more to the history that most powerfully shaped his own life, the history of Germany’s Jews and their long, complex, and ultimately tragic relationship to German politics and society. Over the next three decades, Angress produced a series of extraordinary articles. To mention just three of them: “Juden im politischen Leben der Revolutionszeit” (1971), “Prussia’s Army and the Jewish Reserve Officer Controversy before World War I” (1972), and—my own favorite—“The German Army’s ‘Judenzählung’ of 1916: Genesis-Consequences-Significance” (1978). Unlike those books that could easily have been articles, many of Angress’s articles were weighty and significant enough to have been books.
In 1965, Angress published a brief essay in the Year Book of the Leo Baeck Institute on Gross Breesen. This turned out to be the first of a number of autobiographical pieces that increasingly absorbed his energies and attention. The most significant products of this were two books. Generation zwischen Furcht und Hoffnung: Jüdische Jugend im Dritten Reich (Christians Verlag, 1985, translated as Between Fear and Hope: Jewish Youth in the Third Reich and published by Columbia University Press in 1988) begins with a long essay on the fate of young German Jews under the Nazis and then prints letters and documents about Angress’s time in Gross Breesen and his heroic (and ultimately successful) efforts to save the members of the community who were arrested in 1938. Angress’s last book, …immer etwas abseits: Jugenderinnerungen eines jüdischen Berliners, 1920–45 (Edition Hentrich, 2005), tells the story of his childhood, the increasingly toxic atmosphere of Nazi Berlin, his emigration, and his military service. It is, in many ways, the story of sorrow and of loss, but also of resilience, courage, and, ultimately, survival, vividly illustrated by the photograph of Angress and his extended family with which the book concludes.
Throughout his long career, Tom Angress was a dedicated and effective teacher who was twice honored with prestigious awards at SUNY Stony Brook. After his retirement and return to Berlin in 1988, he continued to teach, to mentor young scholars, and to share his experiences with high school students who were growing up in a very different Berlin.
Like all of us, Angress had his faults: his temper, usually directed at the many mechanical devices that defied his will, was legendary. But to those hundreds of people whose lives he touched, Tom Angress will be remembered for his fundamental decency, tolerance, and generosity. He was an attentive and devoted friend, a thoughtful companion at times of joy and sadness. Tom’s memory will be cherished by many throughout the world and especially by the family whose love was at the center of his life: his two brothers, Hans and Fred; his former wives, Millie and Claudia; his sons, Dan and Percy; his daughters, Nadine and Miriam; his daughters and sons-in-law; grandchildren; and the companion of his final years, Elma Gaasbeek.
Werner Thomas Angress died in Berlin on July 5, 2010, a week after his 90th birthday.
—James J. Sheehan