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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Obituary for John Röhl: The steadfast one

Obituary for the great historian John Röhl, who was one of the first to critically research Wilhelmine society.

John Röhl (1938–2023) Photo: Stuart Robinson

In the film “Bridge of Spies,” the spy Rudolf Abel tells a story from his childhood. A friend was severely abused by marauding soldiers: “They beat him, but he got up every time. They hit him harder and harder, to no avail. Eventually they gave up and let him live. they called him Stoikiy muzhik. The steadfast man.”

John Röhl liked this film scene, perhaps because he had a lot in common with the resilient man. He learned about violence as a child. His parents worked in southern Hungary in 1944. As a six-year-old, he experienced how his English mother was interrogated by the Gestapo and his German father was kidnapped by the SS. After a long odyssey, John ended up in a Swiss children’s home and was only able to travel to England to live with his mother in 1946. Röhl died in Sussex on November 17th at the age of 85.

After the war, growing up with a British mother and a German father was not easy. After his parents’ divorce, Röhl had to commute between the two countries. In Manchester he lived in his mother’s bohemian family, in Germany in a post-war German society that suppressed everything. It is therefore not surprising that he became interested in the roots of Anglo-German antagonism. Since then, no historian has been able to explain this contrast to us better than him. It became the theme of his life, but the path to get there was anything but easy.

Take difficult paths

In Great Britain he first had to complete his military service as a mechanic. Although he didn’t go to an elite private school, he was able to win a scholarship to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge in 1958. Here he shined.

Röhl used sources to show the great guilt of the Prussian leadership

His doctoral supervisor was Sir Harry Hinsley, who was involved in the discovery of the Enigma machine during World War II. Hinsley recognized Röhl’s great potential and his willingness to take difficult paths. Even as a young doctoral student, Röhl found back doors into heavily guarded buildings. For his first book about Wilhelmine society, he worked in East German archives, and later in countless private archives of the German nobility.

In 1964 he became a lecturer at the University of Sussex and was later appointed professor of European history there. He deserved a chair at Oxford or Cambridge, but the great originality of his work was not recognized by the British Academy with an FBA. In Germany and America, however, he received several major honors. They were long overdue because his archive finds fundamentally changed our view of Wilhelmine society.

The great guilt of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

To date, there are two groups in the theories of international relations that argue about whether state actors (emperors, chancellors, dictators) or the international system determine events.

While the Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor in the 1960s, in a highly generalized manner, blamed the European system for the outbreak of the First World War, Röhl used a wealth of source evidence to show the great guilt of the Prussian leadership, above all Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Röhl later came into opposition to Christopher Clark. In his book about the First World War, Clark took up Taylor’s old 1960s thesis again and also defended the character of Wilhelm II in a biography. The last German emperor, like his later son, the Crown Prince, would be a weak, relative one been an influential man. This sketch contrasts with John Röhl’s three-volume, source-rich biography of Wilhelm II, which shows a completely different man.

Anti-Semitism of the Kaiser

Röhl’s research also won in the Hohenzollern debate 2019 relevance again. In volume three of his Wilhelm biography he shows the busy approach of several members of the Hohenzollern family to the National Socialists. Röhl’s archive finds also demonstrated the emperor’s anti-Semitic conspiracy madnesswho fantasized about gassing Jews in the 1920s.

Röhl had material for another, fourth volume, and it is hoped that the C. H. Beck Verlag in Munich will publish it posthumously. John’s generosity to his many students was legendary. Although he was already seriously ill with cancer, he helped colleagues who had to deal with the Hohenzollern’s injunctions. At the same time, he also tried to get a Nigerian nurse a residence permit in Great Britain. As a real one Stoikiy muzhik Through it all, he always remained calm and funny.

There is another quote in “Bridge of Spies” that fits him. Tom Hanks asks his client Abel if he isn’t afraid of death. And Abel replies dryly: “Would it help?”

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