Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007)
Hartmut Berghoff, January 2009
Historian of modern Germany
Gerald D. Feldman of the University of California at Berkeley died on October 31, 2007, at the age of 70. With his death, we have lost an untiring mentor, an eminent scholar, a beloved colleague, and a wonderful friend.
Feldman was born on April 24, 1937. He grew up in a Jewish family in New York City in modest circumstances. A state scholarship enabled him to study at Columbia University, after which he moved to Harvard. His groundbreaking dissertation published in 1966, Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914–18, remains a classic account of German society’s militarization in the First World War. In 1963, he moved to Berkeley, where he collaborated with intellectuals of German origin like Hans Rosenberg and Wolfgang Sauer. Feldman in a way extended the topic of his dissertation into the Weimar Republic. His next major book was Iron and Steel in the German Inflation, 1916–23, published in 1977. It focused on the relationship of Germany’s heavy industry and the political fate of the Weimar Republic.
His masterpiece followed in 1993: The Great Disorder. Politics, Economics, and Society in the German Inflation, 1914–24. On more than 1,000 densely written pages, Feldman led his readers through all stages of the inflation from the war economy to the chaos of hyperinflation in 1923. In his detailed description he succeeds in integrating political and economic history. The sheer volume of material and Feldman’s analytical clarity have made this volume the definitive account of the German inflation, and it will surely remain so for years to come. Only three years later, he published another 1,000-page book, a biography of the infamous “king of the inflation,” Hugo Stinnes.
In recent years, Feldman had focused on business history, becoming the leading scholar of German companies in the Third Reich. He wrote or co-wrote Deutsche Bank (1995), Allianz (2001), and the Österreichische Banken und Sparkassen (2006), and also advised research groups that produced volumes on forced labor in the mining industry (Zwangsarbeit im Bergbau, 2005) and on the Dresdner Bank (2006).
Feldman’s thorough research and high academic standards greatly contributed to business history winning the recognition of the historical profession, the corporate world, and the wider public. The quality of his work demonstrated that commissioned histories can meet the highest academic standards. He also convinced many German executives that facing the truth about their company’s history—however disturbing and shocking it might be—was in their own best interest. Contrary to some other business historians, he always insisted that the archives be opened without any restrictions and that they remain open for other researchers to scrutinize his findings. He loved working with archival material and analyzing new sources in great detail. He did not use theoretical models as a starting point but preferred to let the sources talk in an almost Rankean way. His books, many of which have been translated, were never short, but rather filled with details and complex arguments. He truly believed that individuals played an important part in shaping history, and so he devoted considerable space in his books to describing personalities.
Feldman’s insistence on the highest professional standards without ideological blinders certainly made his life difficult at times. Occasionally, he encountered harsh criticism and personal hostilities. However, respect and approval prevailed in general. His reputation as an independent mind and unerring historian earned him the highest honors, and he received prestigious awards for several of his publications. Among other distinctions, he was appointed to the advisory council of the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, and he received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
As an administrator, he succeeded in building up the Center for German and European Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and transforming it into the thriving Institute of European Studies. He managed to find new funding for the center after the initial grant period of the German government had elapsed. He served as president of the Friends of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., and also served on the academic advisory board of this institute, which connects German and American historians. To strengthen this transatlantic bond was one of his primary concerns.
At the University of California at Berkeley, he was known as a fascinating professor whose lively lectures were full of deep insight and colorful anecdotes. His former students also praise his great personal skill at mentoring them academically and supporting them emotionally at the same time. Gerry Feldman liked to work with young scholars. He never made them feel small. Instead, the high-ranking Berkeley professor treated them like young colleagues right from the start. For several years, he presided over the workgroup on “Business under National Socialism” within the German Society of Business History. In this large and enormously prolific group, he advised many PhD students and younger colleagues researching German companies’ role in the Third Reich. A rich collection of high-class studies with a strong empirical base was the result of this endeavor.
It is a mystery how he managed to get all this work done and still be present on both sides of the Atlantic. He also found the time to indulge in his passion for opera, for good food, and travel. He spent a great deal of time with his many friends in Germany and the U.S. and traveled widely together with his wife, Norma von Ragenfeld-Feldman, a historian herself who supported his work in many ways.
When Gerry Feldman took ill in January 2007, he was full of new research plans: he had already arranged to work for a year at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on the history of Jewish businessmen before 1933. His brave fight against lymphoma prevented him from getting back to the sources and writing yet another profound book. We miss his professional expertise and advice as much as his wonderful humor and deep friendship.
German Historical Institute, Washington