Obituary: Professor Peter Pulzer

Refugee scholar who analysed how Austrian and German nationalism fostered Nazism


How did it come about that Germany and Austria became such hotbeds of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution in the 20th century? This question and the complex answers to it pre-occupied the brilliant Austrian-born Jewish scholar and refugee professor Peter Pulzer, who has died at the age of 93.

“Why was it,” Pulzer enquired, “that the 19th century, a century that I had always associated with the expansion of liberty, with reason, progress and respect for human dignity, with a repudiation of traditional authoritarianism and ancient prejudices, spawned, in its last decades, those irrationalities and superstitions that have haunted my century?”

As a doctoral student at King’s College, Cambridge in the early 1950s, Pulzer set out to provide an authoritative response in a thesis that was subsequently published as The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria.

In this work and in a later monograph, Jews and the German State 1848-1933, Pulzer explained how the construction of Austrian and German national identities had been accompanied by a desire to exclude those who refused to be totally assimilated into the emerging states.

“The antisemitism that mattered in the German Empire and the Weimar Republic was not that of a handful of parliamentary demagogues, nor even of vandalism, physical violence and terrorism, but the pervasive non-acceptance, within significant sectors of German society, of the Jew as a truly equal fellow-citizen.”

But Pulzer added: “There is no audience without a prior willingness to listen.”

Pulzer demonstrated, without emotion, how the German and Austrian bourgeoisie had deliberately adopted illiberalism as a tool of their political advancement, enabling them to dismantle the Weimar Republic and achieve Anschluss – the union of Austria with Germany in defiance of the Versailles Treaty that had ended the First World War.

Pulzer’s analysis has stood the test of time. But that should come as no surprise, as it was rooted in a first-hand experience of violent anti-Jewish prejudice.

Peter George Julius Pulzer was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna, in 1929, the son of Felix Pulzer, a civil engineer, and his wife Margarete.

On November 10, 1938 the Pulzer apartment was brutally vandalised by brown-shirted Nazi stormtroopers, who (Pulzer later recalled) “looted everything they could get their hands on”. His father and grandfather were arrested by the Gestapo, but released the following day. Within a few months, and with the help of an Anglican family living in Hertfordshire, the Pulzer family managed to resettle in England.

Awarded a place at Surbiton County Grammar School, Pulzer was admitted to study history at King’s College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a double First.

This he followed by gaining a BSc (Econ) degree awarded by the University of London. In 1962 he was appointed University Lecturer in Politics and Official Student (i.e. Fellow) and Tutor in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1985 he moved to All Souls College as Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration, retiring as an Emeritus Fellow at the College in 1996.

Pulzer had, as a teenager, determined to become totally fluent in English, which he spoke (as this writer can attest) without the slightest trace of an accent. His election to the Gladstone chair raised some eyebrows.

But in fact Pulzer’s published output had already extended far beyond the politics of antisemitism. In 1967 he had published Political Representation and Elections in Britain, which went into three editions, and in time he taught three Oxford MPhil courses: in politics, international relations and European politics & society.

Pulzer was a man of unshakeable principles. He remained an unrepentant socialist all his life. In 1985 he played, totally unapologetically, a leading part in the defeat of a proposal to confer an honorary Oxford degree on prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

He was the recipient of many honours himself, including the Federal Cross of Merit from Germany (2004) and (2008) the Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria – the highest award that could be conferred by the Austrian state.

In December, 2012 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Vienna. He held visiting professorships at the universities of Munich, Dresden, Berlin and Leipzig, and was chairman of the Leo Baeck Institute in London.

In 1962 Pulzer married Gillian Marshall. She survives him with their two sons.

Professor Peter Pulzer: born May 29, 1929. Died January 26, 2023.

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