AHA President, 1967


Yale University

From the American Historical Review 75:1 (October 1969)

Hajo Holborn (May 18, 1902–June 20, 1969) was the complete historian, probably the last of his illustrious company that we shall ever see. He appropriated all the great cultural traditions of our past and joined them, without a seam showing, to the scientific and activist standards of our present. The classical languages, philology, theology, philosophy, literature, the musical and plastic arts, international relations, public administration, sociology-he had the run of all these departments of human endeavor, and they opened to him an unparalleled range of knowledge over the manifold facets of man’s past. He cast his panoramic view of the species into the dimension of the past not simply from his profound commitment to the scholar’s role in preserving the heritage of civilized humanity but even more because he was in the truest sense of the term a scientist who found in the rigorous tests of the Rankean historical discipline the most appropriate way of converting information into truth. The truth of history was thus for him a vital force; it was the most effective means of mastering human nature and of guiding human action toward political and social reform. Hence he was heard and read not only by colleagues and students but by officials and publicists of two continents with an attention and a respect accorded to few in our profession. They revered him both as the custodian of their culture and as an oracle for their decisions.

But even these awesome qualities—the sheer mass, the fidelity, and the relevance of his knowledge—that made Hajo Holborn’s presence so imposing only begin to explain his unique hold upon two generations of academic and public life. There were also—most pervasive in actuality but most elusive for definition—the principles that he stood for and that he taught. Since his was an integral character, he asserted them alike in his writing, in his teaching, and in his manliness. The principles were constant, but because he would teach them only as embodied in and tested by one or another kind of activity, they were visible in different lights according to his respective roles as writer, instructor, and person. They were diffracted in the first, implicit in the second, and lustrous in the third.

The most distinctive features of Hajo Holborn’s written history stem precisely from his dedication of it to the provision of an intellectual support for his moral principles. The fine balance of factuality and interpretation, of respect for human variety and inquiry for human constancy, that informs all his historical writing was the scholarly representation of the ultimate harmony which he found between the free expression of individuality and the socializing drive toward universal community as equivalent principles of human nature. His own remarkable growth as a historian, consequently, developed the function of his historical equipoise from the open-minded juxtaposition of divergent realities to their generous synthesis. As a prodigy in the Germany of the 1920’s he demonstrated his virtuosity by alternating easily between his model studies of Bismarckian diplomacy and the masterly analysis of Reformation culture that produced his classic portrait of Ulrich von Hutten. His creative response to the German and world crises of the 1930’s spurred his subsequent growth along two axes that seemed externally incongruous and that yet proved wonderfully symmetrical in him: he became even more versatile as he added the social life of ordinary men to his professional panoply, and he became more integral as he perceived the single historical destiny toward which the most diverse activities of men inexorably converged. In a host of pioneering lectures and articles after his emigration in 1933 he extended his audience from Europe to the Western world—for, characteristically, he did not shift so much as enlarge his audience with his move to America—and plumbed both the philosophy of history and new combinations of social, political, and intellectual history for the concepts with which to organize and synthesize the greatly expanded historical manifold.

With the end of the Second World War he reached his scholarly maturity and, merging his traditional talents with his new insights, produced the succession of masterpieces, long and short, that have given inimitable historical individuals their definitive location in the broad stream of human history. Thus, in his Political Collapse of Europe, he defined the historical identity of that intricately articulated continental culture, immersing without dissolving it in the political, economic, and ideological context of a larger world. His History of Modern Germany was conceived and executed in an ever grander style. In it he plotted the entire course of that pivotal nation’s history, in its every dimension, since the decay of the medieval Empire, creating a vital collective being out of the changing relations among its internal economic, social, political, cultural, and religious parts and cradling it continuously in the European matrix whence it drew its life’s blood.

And so, in Hajo Holborn’s writing, every historical reality got its value from its spontaneity and its meaning from its role in a process more inclusive and closer to the unity of mankind than itself. Every historical fact became, for him, a window upon a larger vista, not so much because he always viewed the fact within the larger framework—this can be a mechanical enterprise—as because he looked for those actions that historical men themselves undertook in the light of the great world. Thus individuals in his history always came to include the general processes of their respective ages as integral parts of their own careers.

In his teaching, again, he represented contrary values in their categorical purity and somehow meshed them to produce the most improbably fruitful results. On the one hand, the independence of the student was an absolutely inviolable article of faith with him. In his eyes all students were equal, and all were precious, whatever their starting capacities. He never intruded; he never prescribed; he cherished and marveled at the autonomous development of each scholar, vagaries and all, as another worthy addition in the infinitely variegated society of truth seekers, in the manner of the classical idealism he loved so well. Even the rare occasions when he cast a critical judgment—and from him this meant the gentle murmur that “this will not do”—the verdict fell like a thunderclap upon the student because he knew that in the eyes of Professor Holborn he had committed the one mortal sin: he had defaulted from his own potentiality; he had violated the law of his own being.

And yet the Holborn stamp was indelible. Holborn PhD’s populate the faculties of our colleges and universities in numbers astonishing for their provenance from a reservoir as deliberately small as Holborn’s Yale graduate department, and they are joined by a legion of his younger colleagues who went informally to school with him. His students’ specialties reflect the staggering range of the fields he taught: German history in all its periods; the diplomatic, intellectual, and general histories of Europe; historiography and the philosophy of history; and, intensively, the Ages of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the contemporary world. Yet, despite their dispersion and despite their differences of age and concentration, all bear the Holborn mark: they identify themselves as his students and are sensible of the special bond that links them. The mark comes not so much from what Hajo Holborn told them as from what Hajo Holborn showed them. For this was the way he taught them while he respected their independence, and never has this time-honored way of learning an art been more effective.

What it was, ultimately, that he taught in his writing and in his classes—what the substance of the primary principle was that meshed his unique historical individuals in ever-larger processes and that magnetized his sovereign students—was the profound truth that became incarnate in his own existence. During his final years the sunny serenity of the disposition that had seemed simply a personal bonus in so acute and decisive a scholar flamed into the pure courage that revealed to us once more the man who, virtually alone among the established figures of his vulnerable calling, had openly defended an expiring German democracy and opposed a rising tyranny. Now he faced infirmity and coped with it; he faced pain and soared above it; he faced death and fought daily with it—all to assert time and again the abiding power of the human spirit. Now, at last, Hajo Holborn made explicit what he had by indirection tried to teach us all these years: the quest for knowledge is a moral act, and every individual, whether as historical actor or recorder, realizes his own moral integrity only by expanding his quest to the integral knowledge of all that it takes, and has taken, to be a man. And so the life of Hajo Holborn has become the exegesis of his work.—Leonard Krieger, Columbia University



Aufzeichnungen und erinnerungen aus dem leben des botschafters Joseph Maria von Radowitz, hrsg. von Hajo Holborn. 2 vols. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-anstalt, 1925.

Bismarcks europäische Politik zu Beginn der siebziger Jahre und die Mission Radowitz, von Hajo Holborn; mit ungedruckten Urkunden aus dem politische Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes und dem Nachlass des Botschafters von Radowitz. Berlin: Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte, 1925.

Kriegsschuld und reparationen auf der Pariser friedenskonferenz von 1919, von Hajo Holborn. Leipzig und Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1932.

Ulrich von Hutten and the German Reformation, by Hajo Holborn, translated by Ronald H. Bainton. New Haven, Yale University Press; London, H. Milford: Oxford University Press, 1937; Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

The interpretation of history, by Jacques Barzun, Hajo Holborn, Herbert Heaton, Dumas Malone [and] George La Piana; edited with an introduction by Joseph A. Strayer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1943.

The political collapse of Europe. 1st ed. New York, Knopf, 1951; Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

A history of modern Germany. 1st ed. 3 vols. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1959-69.

The Responsibility of power; historical essays in honor of Hajo Holborn. Edited by Leonard Krieger and Fritz Stern. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967.

Deutsche Geschichte in der Neuzeit. 3 vols. München, R. Oldenbourg, c1970-71.

Germany and Europe: historical essays. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970.

History and the humanities. Introd. by Leonard Krieger. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

Republic to Reich; the making of the Nazi revolution; ten essays. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

American military government, its organization and policies, by Hajo Holborn. Buffalo: W. S. Hein, 1975.