03 December 2012: In Memory of Harry Lubasz

Marcuse and Lubasz

Harry (Heinz) Lubasz who died over the summer this year was one of the founders of the Department of History. He was also a walking historical document. Born in Vienna in 1928, his family was subject to the Nazi persecution following the Anschluss of 1938. Harry remembered how his best friend at school suddenly stopped talking to him because he was Jewish and how his mother was forced to scrub streets in the city. This personal experience – he was in the city when the great crowds jubilantly welcomed Hitler – led him to view Vienna as ‘the cess-pit of Europe’. He remained unimpressed by its post-war incarnation and development whereas he came to admire and enjoy a city like Munich. It may be that the systematic attempt in Germany to reckon with the Nazi past – something that has been so woefully evaded in Austria – provided the space for such a different response to a city that had also once been Hitler’s. 

Harry and his family narrowly escaped the fate of most of the Jews of Europe and he was able to leave Vienna with his younger brother in 1940. Travelling through Germany – accompanied by a favourite aunt, a German Jewish woman whom he never saw again – he and his brother were placed on a kindertransport, probably one that left from Holland. (He kept his kindertransport armband all his life.) He spent the war years in England where he completed his schooling. Formidably intelligent, he was also a very fine footballer. His position was goalkeeper.

After the war, Harry joined his parents in New York and, after a brief stint in diamond cutting, he studied history at Yale where he did both his undergraduate work and his PhD. He then taught at the Universities of Chicago and at Brandeis before coming to Essex.

The range of his scholarly interests bespoke the kind of mind that could turn itself to anything. His PhD had actually been on English law in the 1500s. But in 1961, his book on the modern state brought together a set of scholars (some of them world famous) that charted the rise and significance of the state over the last 500 years. The opening essay by Harry surveyed the half-millenium and powerfully homed in on the essence of the modern state and its difference from the totalitarian state.

Harry also edited collections on modern European revolutions and on fascism. His own contribution to the volume on fascism included a version of an essay that he had already published in the New York Review of Books in 1968. In it he brilliantly demonstrated that Hitler’s promise of social revolution was a sham but that the drive against the Jews and, later, the systematic predation upon the societies in Nazi-occupied Europe provided many with the opportunities and material prosperity that the socio-economic structure of Germany otherwise prevented them from attaining.

Harry was also a profound scholar of Marx and only his extreme perfectionism held him back from making the kind of ground breaking contribution that was in his power to make. What he did publish on Marx – for example, a powerful exploration of the place and problems of the notion of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’; an article that revealed the degree to which Marx was animated above all by a deep and humane concern with poverty – was searching, convincing and set forth with clarity.

Part of the great tradition of German intellectual culture which helped to form him, Harry was equally at home in history and philosophy. In the early-1960s, he introduced a symposium on historical explanation in the highly-prestigious journal History and Theory. There he warned against that tendency of some historians to rely too much on intuition and subjective response. Such an approach should worry those, he argued, ‘who genuinely value the pursuit of truth’. Some may also remember his wonderfully-modulated Radio 3 broadcast on the contradictions in the philosophy of Karl Popper. Harry was a scholar always concerned with the contemporary implications of his work. His study of Adam Smith led him publicly to pour scorn on the Thatcherite version of the great economist. In The Guardian not long before Thatcher fell, he demolished the idea that Adam Smith did not believe that classes existed and he resoundingly declared that Thatcherism would be remembered as a time when ‘the facts were shouted down’.

Harry had immense respect for the serious student radicalism he encountered in the 1960s at Brandeis University where he was strongly influenced by Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist theorist of alienation (see attached photo of Marcuse and Harry). However, in his teaching on Marx (and other subjects), he demanded rigour and a critical stance from his students. Any who came to his classes expecting some kind of ideological beating of a Marxist drum found instead a discomfiting critical exploration and interrogation.

In the last phase of his career as a historian, Harry turned to analyse the history that had driven him out of Austria as a boy and in which so many members of his family had succumbed: the Holocaust. He ran an outstandingly successful course on the subject – an external examiner singled it out for special praise. He also presented some papers on the road to genocide. He stressed that the shift to genocide in 1941 was linked in some profound way to the ‘distorted logic’ of the Nazi thought world in which Jews (as at the end of the First World War) were conceived as traitors so that reverses on the Eastern Front were blamed on them. But he was not content to leave his analysis at the level of war-time circumstances. There were intellectual and philosophical sources for the genocide, he argued, and he sought to lay these bare.

Unfortunately, Harry did not publish on the subject. Perhaps it was all too painful for him, or – perhaps (as was the case with his developing work on Marx) – he had set himself standards of originality and perfectionism that were simply too daunting for any scholar.

Harry was married to Olivia Harris, the distinguished anthropologist of Latin America, and was a man who had a deep hinterland that his colleagues only sometimes glimpsed. He was a superb cook and loved to dance: he met Olivia through dancing, and they danced an Argentinian tango here at Essex in honour of the Latin Americanist Simon Collier when he was leaving for Vanderbilt University. Harry was also a sailor, one expert enough to leave the Colne and venture across the Channel: the historian Vic Gatrell has a luminous memory of crossing a phosphorescent North Sea with Harry, whisky to hand.

We will all miss Harry’s warm, affectionate smile and his no-bullshit, incisive commentary on matters intellectual or political. Olivia, sadly, died a few years ago, but Harry is survived by his daughter, Marina, whose arrival (rather late in Harry’s career) made him ‘ecstatically happy’.

Dr Jeremy Krikler, Department of History

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