In Memoriam: Henry Ashby Turner Jr.

Peter Hayes and Helmut Walser Smith, May 2009

German historian; designed history major at Yale

Henry Ashby Turner Jr. died at Yale-New Haven Hospital on December 17, 2008, of complications resulting from melanoma. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 4, 1932, he grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1954 from Washington and Lee University. There he encountered German history in the classrooms of William A. Jenks, a historian of Austria and exceptional undergraduate mentor. Following a year of study at the University of Munich and another at the Free University of Berlin, Turner earned his master’s degree (1957) and his PhD (1960) from Princeton University, where his dissertation advisor was Gordon Craig.

Turner joined the history department at Yale University in 1958, rising during his 44-year career there to a series of endowed chairs and retiring in 2002 as Charles J. Stillé professor emeritus. He was a superb and dedicated university citizen. As director of undergraduate studies in history from 1962 to 1965, he laid down the broad outlines of the history department’s undergraduate major program. These have endured to this day and shaped the intellectual experience of thousands of students who have passed through what has been the largest major in Yale College virtually ever since. He also chaired the department at Yale from 1976 to 1979 and served as a much appreciated Master of Davenport College from 1981 to 1991. In these and other institutional roles, he was a steady advocate of faculty rights and responsibilities and a fount of encouragement and good counsel to students.

Turner’s scholarly work had a profound effect on the study of modern German political history, particularly in the Weimar and Nazi periods. Supported by a glittering array of fellowships, from the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller foundations, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the German Marshall Fund, and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, he researched and produced a series of groundbreaking works that overturned conventional wisdom on their subjects.

His first book, Stresemann and the Politics of the Weimar Republic (Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), depicted the great German foreign minister’s struggles as a domestic politician and showed how these undermined his diplomatic achievements. Based on the Stresemann papers and unpublished cabinet protocols, the work both convincingly demonstrated the sincerity of Stresemann’s eventual embrace of the Weimar Republic and critiqued many of his specific policy judgments.

The major projects of the middle phase of Turner’s career—the articles collected in Faschismus und Kapitalismus in Deutschland [Fascism and Capitalism in Germany] (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972) and his magnum opus, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (Oxford Univ. Press, 1985)—dismantled the Marxist legend that German industry and finance had lifted Hitler to power and replaced that tale with a nuanced portrayal of complicated relations between mutually mistrustful entities.

Turner belonged to the first generation of modern German historians in North America who regularly worked in German archives. Carefully interrogated primary documents, he believed, were indispensable to performing one of the historians’ primary tasks: debunking myth. Turner also believed passionately in the importance of contingency—that is, the particular and often unpredictable interaction of events—and of individuals in shaping history.

These convictions stamped two of his later works, Geisel des Jahrhunderts: Hitler und seine Hinterlassenschaft [Hostage of the Century: Hitler and his Legacy] (Siedler, 1989), a brilliant exercise of counterfactual analysis, and Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power: January 1933 (Addison-Wesley, 1996), a painstaking reconstruction of the twists and turns, many of which could have gone otherwise, that led to Adolf Hitler’s naming as chancellor of Germany.

Turner’s last monograph, General Motors and the Nazis (Yale Univ. Press, 2005), laid to rest easy ahistorical suppositions about the freedom of action of foreign enterprises in Nazi Germany and thus about their implication in the crimes of that regime. For this work, Turner formed a research team that scoured relevant archives in order to recreate the largely lost documentary record of General Motors’ relationship with Opel, its German subsidiary. He then used the new collection, deposited in the Sterling Library at Yale, as the basis for his book, which was written independently of the firms involved and for which he received no remuneration from them.

Turner also authored one of the best concise narratives on postwar German history, originally published in 1987 and later reissued in a revised and expanded version under the new title Germany from Partition to Reunification (Yale Univ. Press, 1992). Altogether he wrote or edited 10 books, nearly all of which appeared in both English and German; Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power also has been translated into Italian, French, Spanish, and Polish. Despite his illness, he remained active as a scholar until the end of his life. His final article, part of a study of Kurt von Schleicher, the last German chancellor prior to Hitler, was published only a few days before he died.

Turner became embroiled in controversy during the 1980s when he felt obligated to draw historians’ attention to the number of misquotations and misattributions that he had identified in a book written by David Abraham, a young historian at Princeton, entitled The Collapse of the Weimar Republic. Although a second edition of the book eventually corrected many of these errors, Turner’s motives in the matter were frequently impugned at the time and thereafter, and he paid a price in damaged friendships and whispered calumnies for what he regarded as a necessary defense of historical accuracy and integrity.

Admired as an undergraduate teacher, Turner was revered by his graduate students, 18 of whom completed dissertations under his direction. Both groups respected and strove to emulate his famously exacting standards and found that doing so gained them access to a remarkably warm and considerate human being.

In recognition of his distinguished scholarship, Turner received an honorary doctorate of letters from his alma mater and the Commanders Cross of the Order of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz) from the Federal Republic of Germany.

He is survived by Jane Turner, his wife of 50 years; his sons Bradley and Matthew; his daughter Sarah Ryan; and seven grandchildren.

—Peter Hayes
Northwestern University

—Helmut Walser Smith
Vanderbilt University