• U.S.

Education: Stormy Weather in Academe

5 minute read
Ezra Bowen

At first David Abraham, assistant professor of history at Princeton, was rightly proud. Initial reviews of his book, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis, had sung high praise. “Intellectually and stylistically weighty,” declared the Library Journal. This “book’s strength is its thought-provoking interpretation,” wrote a second critic. And a reader of the manuscript, judging it for publication by the Princeton University Press, rated the work as “the most important book on 20th century Germany written in the past 15 years.”

Such accolades are tough to come by in academe, where scholars guard their intellectual turf and rarely show kindness toward a contrary thesis. Abraham’s volume laid a measure of blame for the failure of the post-World War I German government upon German businessmen, who came to favor Hitler, a view that scholars have squabbled about for decades. The book, with its Marxist perspective, was respected even by uncompromising Gerald D. Feldman, a University of California expert on late imperial and Weimar Germany. Feldman had critiqued an early draft and pronounced the volume “imaginative and interesting.”

All this commendation, back in 1981, was deeply gratifying to Abraham. Then 34, with only a short-term teaching position at Princeton, he was anxious for tenure, the guarantee of lifetime job security. To publish with such laudatory notices could provide insurance against perishing in the limbo of the untenured. But tenure never materialized. Instead, Abraham became caught up in a running storm of accusations about his book. The charges, ranging from sloppiness to fraud, continued to buffet him a fortnight ago at the American Historical Association convention in Chicago, where he found himself walled in by controversy. Commented A.H.A. Executive Director Samuel Gammon: “It’s almost impossible to get involved and be neutral.”

Abraham’s problems began when he was attacked, 18 months after the publication of his book, by patrician Henry Turner of Yale. Turner, who has little or no use for Marxist history, wrote a testy review in the Political Science Quarterly. He charged that Abraham had rewritten quotations and selected only portions of source documents that suited his purposes.

Interestingly, Turner was completing a book of his own, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler. That volume, scheduled for publication by Oxford on Jan. 20, attributes the Weimar Republic’s demise to an array of historical causes. “Only through gross distortion,” writes Turner, “can big business be accorded a crucial or even major role.” Privately, he now comments, “If Abraham’s right, I’m wrong.”

Other academics soon entered the fray. At the University of Bielefeld, in West Germany, Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler had received The Collapse of the Weimar Republic to evaluate, as part of Abraham’s rite of passage to tenure. Wehler disliked what he called the dogmatic framework of the book and would not recommend tenure. Turner, meanwhile, circularized colleagues, sending them several of Abraham’s quotations, together with underlying source documents that seemed contradictory. For example, Abraham cited Banker Hjalmar Schacht as calling the Nazis “the positive force” and telling associates “we should contribute to them and their efforts.” Actually, Schacht did not use the word “positive” or urge direct contributions.

After receiving the Turner material, Feldman revised his judgment (“I had problems with the book all along”) and also took up the cudgel. He called the quotes a “terrible, terrible distortion.”

In Oberhausen, site of one of Germany’s largest industrial archives, Economics Historian Ulrich Nocken, a former student of Feldman’s, checked the sources of the disputed quotes and said that of 100 Abraham footnotes, only six were correct. The rest of the book, he added, contained “mistakes of every possible kind.” With this new evidence in hand, Turner and Feldman set out in earnest to expose Abraham’s work. They wrote to Catholic University in Washington, where Abraham was under consideration for hiring, and Feldman attached Nocken’s findings. The job evaporated. Abraham lost another opportunity at the University of California, Santa Cruz after Feldman intervened.

Princeton historians, and sympathetic colleagues elsewhere, were offended by the assaults on Abraham. “Everything they could say about Abraham’s book might be true,” said Princeton’s Carl Schorske. “Still, the method of trying to get this guy is not civil.” Schorske, joined by University of Chicago President Hanna Gray and other ranking academics, lodged a protest against the attackers with the professional affairs committee of the A.H.A. Last week the committee declined to pursue the matter, on the shaky grounds that in scholarship, ethical standards may be too subjective to enforce–and in any case, “the system” of open criticism among academicians works well enough as it is.

How had Abraham become the focus of such turmoil? At the A.H.A. convention, the Belgian-born historian conceded, “There are mistakes in my book.” (Earlier he had admitted paraphrasing the quotes.) “But,” he insists, “the mistakes do not distort reality. The truth, the argument, wasn’t based on the errors. Like all historians, I interpreted a mass of material in a way that is most truthful.”

Historians, however, remained polarized over both Abraham’s work and the attacks against him. Feldman said, “What Abraham has done disqualifies him as a member of the profession.” Other academicians were deeply troubled by the spectacle of powerful, tenured scholars coming down on a young man at the most vulnerable point in his career.

For David Abraham, the bottom line is a tarnished reputation and the prospect of being out of work in June, when his appointment at Princeton finally expires. But for the entire profession there seemed to be another bottom line, defined by a senior historian and A.H.A. committee chairman who, after all the furor, insisted on anonymity. “I feel an immense sadness,” he said. “We have not shown our best face to the world.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com