Tribute to Jost Hermand

Jost Hermand (1930-2021)

in memoriam


Jost near Lake Mendota (Madison, 2010)

If you wish to commemorate Jost’s enormous contributions to German Studies, please consider a donation in his memory to the Jost Hermand Graduate Fund at the University of Wisconsin Foundation


Stephen Brockmann

Helen Fehervary

Frank Trommler

Helmut G. Asper

Michael Niedermeier

Peter Beicken

Sabine Kebir

Janet Swaffar

Robert Cohen

Sabine Gross

Kristopher Imbrigotta

Sara Lennox

Joachim Lucchesi

Christel Berger

Karen Achberger

Robert C. Holub

Other Obituaries and Nachrufe

Jost in front of the flowering quince beside his house (Madison, 2019)


Stephen Brockmann, President of the International Brecht Society (Pittsburgh)

The International Brecht Society mourns the loss of Jost Hermand, who passed away in Madison, Wisconsin on October 9, 2021 at the age of 91. Throughout his long and distinguished career as a scholar, he was one of the greatest and most passionate defenders and interpreters of Bertolt Brecht and his work. As one of the founders of the International Brecht Society in the early 1970s, and, together with his long-time colleague Reinhold Grimm, he created what ultimately became the Brecht Yearbook, which started life as Brecht heute / Brecht today. Hermand stimulated interest in Brecht and his work in the German- and English-speaking worlds and again and again came back to Brecht in his teaching and publications, even at the end of his life, inspiring generations of students and colleagues to work on Brecht. The infrastructure of Brecht scholarship would not be what it is today without Jost Hermand and his work. With Brecht, he shared a commitment to the use value of literature and art, insisting that even beauty should be put to service as one of the most powerful tools in the struggle for a better, fairer world. With Brecht, he believed that, even in the midst of brutality and darkness, it is possible to discern, encourage, and strengthen positive dialectical counter-movements. With Brecht, he rejected obscurantism and phony mysticism and insisted on a committed, passionate, and pleasurable struggle to comprehend the world and its mysteries. Brecht and Hermand were both hard workers, committed to what Brecht called the “great production” (große Produktion) or the “Third Thing” (dritte Sache), i.e., a world in which, as Brecht put it, “mankind is a helper unto mankind.”  Jost Hermand was also an expert on and personally acquainted with Brecht’s most important German heir, Heiner Müller, whose work he helped bring to the United States. If the former was frequently to be found with a cigarette in his hand, the latter usually preferred a cigar. Whereas Müller was often pessimistic, Jost shared with Brecht a humanistic and positive streak that helped him to see utopian possibilities and trajectories. One of his late books, Vorbilder: Partisanenprofessoren im geteilten Deutschland (Role Models: Partisan Professors in a Divided Germany, 2014), addressed, among others, the two great Brecht scholars and champions Hans Mayer and Werner Mittenzwei, whom he knew personally. If a second, posthumous edition of that book were to be published now, in the wake of the author’s death, the final chapter would have to be devoted to Jost Hermand himself, who was an exemplary role model and in every way a “partisan professor” in both a divided Germany and an all-too-divided United States. The world of German Studies, and of Brecht scholarship, has lost one of its most devoted and influential leaders.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Helen Fehervary (Columbus)

Helen Fehervary, Jost Hermand, and a map of Berlin (Madison, 1971)

When I arrived in Madison in the fall of 1969, graduate student rumor had it that Professor Hermand was an imposing figure with an encyclopedic mind whose lectures and seminars were packed full of information and quite demanding. Having heard this, I quickly asked the department chair Ian Loram to disenroll me from Professor Hermand’s fall seminar “Drama nach Brecht.” Thank heaven he persuaded me otherwise, for that seminar as well my continuing studies with Jost Hermand changed not only the course of my mind, but my life.

Many of Jost’s former students, among them his fifty-nine Ph.D. graduates, might say much the same. He was a brilliant, inspiring teacher who despite his many other obligations was always attentive and kind to those weaker, younger, and more naive, such as his students. Yet he never coddled them. Rather, he signaled in subtle ways that he expected as much from us as from himself. This aroused occasional fears – as when a student raised her hand and asked if she could ask a “stupid” question, to which he emphatically said “No!” and promptly returned to the subject at hand – but it also aroused in us ever more confidence. How he managed to teach every semester all the while he was producing a steady stream of articles and books remained a mystery to me. Yet I suspect he didn’t devote as much time preparing for his classes as the rest of us earthlings have had to do. Once, just before a graduate class on the Weimar Republic, he stepped into the T.A. office and asked me to remind him of the plot of Ernst Toller’s Hoppla, wir leben! This I did, and was astonished, once the class was underway, that he talked for an hour about details pertaining to every scene in that play, to its staging by Erwin Piscator, to the political, societal, and biographical aspects that inspired Toller to write it. Obviously my few words about the plot tripped a lock in his brain that opened the door to the incalculable mass of information that lodged there. Such unlockings, without outside prompting, must have been a regular occurrence for him as his mind moved seamlessly from one topic, one field of research, one historical era and its significance to the next. Anyone who has heard him lecture can attest to how his fluid control of his subject matter could hold an audience spellbound. And as everyone who has heard him and has read his books knows, Jost could be downright funny. His inclination to irony must have been aroused by his acute awareness of life’s contradictions and also his own. If he championed the Enlightenment tradition in the arts from the Jacobins to Heinrich Heine and Bertolt Brecht, his passionate nature combined with his instinctive Romantic sensibilities – and here he was much closer to Heine than Brecht – also allowed him to stray on occasion from the more regularly beaten paths of his chosen endeavors.

Jost Hermand authored seventy-five books, edited and co-edited as many or more, and published hundreds of articles. In 1958 he began teaching as an instructor of German at the University of Wisconsin where nine years later he became the William F. Vilas Research Professor of German, a position he held until his retirement in 2004. Over the span of his career he lectured widely on several continents, held appointments as visiting professor of German as well as art history at universities in the U.S. and Germany, and from 2003 till 2013 taught as Honorary Professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Hermand’s expertise in the visual arts and music was as formidable as his knowledge of literature. With the Akademie-Verlag series Deutsche Kunst und Kultur von der Gründerzeit bis zum Expressionismus (1959-1975), co-authored with his mentor, the distinguished art historian Richard Hamann – who launched the project but worked only on the first volume, though Hermand kept his name before his own in all five volumes – and continued with Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik (1989), co-authored with his close friend and colleague Frank Trommler, Hermand established himself as the major German Studies scholar of his time who was equally versed in all three fields.  

All this could not have happened without the ever presence of Jost’s creative sensibilities and talents. As we know from his memoir Zu Hause und anderswo (2001), as a boy he was fond of drawing and painting; in his last year at Gymnasium he performed  the lead role in Goethe’s Festspiel drama Des Epimenides Erwachen before an audience of 400, which he managed without a trace of his otherwise troublesome speech impediment; during his university years he wrote poetry and a novel fragment; and as a young professor at the University of Wisconsin, in 1959 he staged a production of Brecht’s Mutter Courage. With his wife Elisabeth Hermand, an accomplished pianist, he played four hands at the piano, though after listening to a recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, he evidently gave up the piano altogether. Jost lived his life surrounded by art and music. During his early years in Madison he came to know the exiled Austrian violinist Rudolf Kolisch – a student and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg who helped him form the Kolisch string quartet that performed original pieces by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Bartók – with whom he occasionally played chess and whose every performance in Madison he attended. Over the years Jost attended every (to him) relevant musical event in Europe as well as in and around Madison, in recent years especially those in which his former student and friend Carol Poore performed on the violin or the recorder.

During my last visit to Madison three years ago, Jost invited me to his house where for the first time I was shown all four floors, each of whose walls bore works he cherished. The small basement room where he sat at a modest desk and wrote on a manual typewriter was surrounded by shelves with books and memorabilia. The first floor with its small living room, dining room, and kitchen, familiar to me since the 1970s when we Ph.D. students were invited for seminars at his home, displayed on its walls an array of fine art works, among them Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s Cäcilia Tschudi als Walküre (1813), which Jost interpreted as a democratic image of the Germania motif during the Napoleonic Wars. (Another of the paintings in the living room was, I believe, by Jost himself.) We then climbed the narrow stairs to the second story where we stood for a long time before a beloved acquisition which he could see from the privacy of his bedroom. This was Manfred Hirzel’s Lotte Danziger (1931), an engaging portrait of a young Jewish woman which Jost saw as a counterpart to the Walküre painting on the floor below. He notably wrote about these two paintings in his Politische Denkbilder: Von Caspar David Friedrich bis Neo Rauch (2011). When we reached the top floor, sparsely furnished and with more art works on the walls, Jost pointed to the spot where his wife Elisabeth’s piano had stood at which she, who had died only a few years earlier, in 2013, played almost daily. He also pointed to the window at which she liked to read her books and often helped him with his own. It looked out over the Hermands’ leafy neighborhood to Lake Wingra where Elisabeth had walked with their dogs.

Jost at a graduate student Fasching party, 1973

Contrary to his often misconstrued persona as a combative, stern ideologue, Jost Hermand was in public and in private both a gentleman and a gentle man. When I began this homage to him I looked through our correspondence, which reaches back to my dissertation year 1971-72 in Berlin. As busy as he was, Jost responded politely, and helpfully, to each of my often confused letters about the topic of my dissertation and its slow progress, and reports of my meetings with Heiner Müller, about whose early plays I had written a seminar paper which Jost translated as “Heiner Müllers Brigadenstücke” and published in his Yearbook Basis (1971). What a fortuitous start this gave me for my academic career! During our correspondence we quarreled only once, when in the Brecht-Jahrbuch (1978) Jost criticized an article I had published on Brecht and Müller in New German Critique 8 (1976) – which he must have sensed was my rather adolescent effort to make myself independent of his thinking from the vantagepoint of NGC. He never talked about it, but he must have felt betrayed, as did I, feeling hurt that my own Doktorvater would single me out for criticism, and I told him so. He for his part insisted I should consider it a compliment that he took my work seriously enough to comment on it in print, and when I threatened to boycott the next Wisconsin Workshop at which I was to speak, begged me to reconsider, which I finally did. It took a while to readjust the terms of our relationship, but in time it all worked out. When we published our collaborative volume Fragen an Heiner Müller (1999), it included Jost’s article, but not mine – which I now also felt was an unfair evaluation of Brecht (and of Jost’s thinking). We never talked about that either.

Our only other, much less heated, disagreement involved my work on Anna Seghers, who appears on the lists of exiled and GDR writers in Jost’s works, but is never treated as such in depth. Why is it, I asked during one of our now regular telephone conversations, that although he prided himself on being a feminist, he had never focused on this particular woman author who wrote so eloquently about political concerns close to his heart. After avoiding this question for some time, he confided to me that in East Berlin in the mid-1950s, Seghers on one occasion made no effort to greet the renowned art historian Richard Hamann – whose works, long before she became president of the GDR Writers Union, she had studied as an unknown art history student in Heidelberg – when he and Hamann entered a room reserved for the GDR elite. Hamann felt snubbed, and his disciple never forgave her. Jost now assured me he would read Seghers’s prose, even wrote about her novel Transit, and agreed to lecture on the visual arts at the Berlin Seghers-Conference in 2008. Yet all this appeared half-hearted. But when I contacted him and others in 2018 for donations to support the multi-volume Anna Seghers critical edition, he immediately sent a generous check along with a postcard of Caspar David Friedrich’s Eismeer on which he wrote: “An Geldmangel soll die Fortsetzung der Seghers Werkausgabe nicht scheitern!” Jost knew well what this kind of undertaking involves. Fifty years earlier he had taken on the yeoman’s task – now forgotten by many critics – of editing a sizeable text-critical, commentated volume of Heinrich Heine’s early works, which in 1973 became in fact the first published volume (volume 6) of the then controversial historisch-kritische Düsseldorfer Heine-Ausgabe.

Over this past summer Jost was in a good spirits. Friends and former students in this country and abroad kept in touch with him. His first Ph.D. graduate, in 1965, Janet Swaffar, still called him regularly from Austin, Texas, as did from Atlanta his final dissertator from the year 2016, Matt Lange, the executor of Jost’s will and final wishes, who visited him in Madison in June. In July, Steve Brockmann came by from Williams Bay, Wisconsin where he was spending the summer; Marc Silberman still had him regularly to lunch; his oldest friend Frank Trommler flew in from Philadelphia for an eagerly awaited stay of several days in Jost’s house; and with Carol Poore, who saw to his computer and many other needs, Jost spent most every afternoon. Moreover his work life was in order. Kris Imbrigotta would now be co-editor of Jost’s long-established, now over 60-volume German Life and Civilization Series with Peter Lang, and the two books he had been working on for the last year were finished and ready to be sent to the publishers: Die Wa(h)re Kunst: Deutsche Kultur im Zeichen sozioökonomischer Wandlungsprozesse, and Hearing Music in a Different Key: Ideological Implications in the Works of German Music.

During the first week of this October, which turned out to be the last week of his life, he called me just before, and once again after, his routine surgical procedure on Monday the 4th, to tell me this and that, as was his wont, and that he was feeling well, indeed so well, he said, that he wished  he could live for several more years. Evidently he was in the same good spirits with Frank Trommler when they telephoned, with Marc Silberman who had a lively conversation with him over coffee and sweets on the afternoon of October 8, one day before he unexpectedly died, and with his pillar of strength Carol Poore who was by his side till the end. Those of us who loved him wish he could have been granted the “several more years” he wished for. But we also know in our hearts that Jost Hermand died a happy man. Farewell, dear Jost. Es erklingen alle Bäume!

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Frank Trommler (Philadelphia)

Jost Hermand and Frank Trommler (Madison, 50th Wisconsin Workshop, Fall 2017)

Jost Hermand, der deutschamerikanische Germanist, der weit über die Fachgrenzen hinaus große Sujets der deutschen Literatur- Kunst- und Musikgeschichte einem breiten Publikum anschaulich vermittelt hat, verstarb am 9. Oktober 2021 in seinem Wohnort Madison in Wisconsin. Mit einer Vielzahl von oftmals reich illustrierten Büchern, von Gastverträgen und -semestern in Deutschland gehörte Hermand zu der kleinen Gruppe öffentlicher Intellektueller, die in der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts die akademische Landschaft des Landes deutlich bunter und lebendiger gemacht haben, was Konfrontationen mit Traditionsvertretern der Wissenschaft einschloss.

Als beliebter Universitätslehrer hielt Hermand der Staatsuniversität von Wisconsin, in die er 1958 von Berlin und Marburg überwechselte, die Treue. Vor allem in den sechziger und siebziger Jahren übte er großen Einfluss auf die Verjüngung der amerikanischen Germanistik aus, machte das von ihm weitgehend dominierte German Department in Madison eine Zeitlang zum führenden germanistischen Institut in den USA, aus dem eine beträchtliche Anzahl bekannter Germanisten und Germanistinnen hervorging.

Hermands Durchbruch als weithin beschlagener und interdiziplinär arbeitender Historiker der deutschen Kulturgeschichte geschah in den sechziger Jahren, als er nach Vorlagen seines Mentors und Vorbildes, des Kunsthistorikers Richard Hamann, die fünfbändige Geschichte  der “Deutschen Kunst und Kultur von der Gründerzeit bis zum Expressionismus” verfaßte, die in Ost- und Westdeutschland veröffentlicht wurde. Der Fortsetzungsband “Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik” (1978), zusammen mit Frank Trommler verfasst, stellte die erste zusammenfassende Analyse der Künste jener Epoche in deutscher Sprache dar. Ebenfalls als Überblick angelegt, fand Hermands zweibändige Kulturgeschichte der Bundesrepublik aufgrund ihrer Kritik der restaurativen Tendenzen eine widersprüchliche Aufnahme.

In der Vielzahl seiner Veröffentlichungen, zu denen nun posthum zwei Bände hinzukommen, läßt sich unschwer ein geradezu missionarisches Engagement an der politisch progressiven, aufklärerischen Literatur, Kunst, Musik und politischen Theorie erkennen. Diese Ausrichtung an progressiver deutscher Kultur reicht von Bertolt Brecht bis zu Heine und den Jacobinern zurück, begreift die Musik Beethovens ebenso ein wie die Malerei Adolf Menzels und Caspar David Friedrichs, Kompositionen von Hanns Eisler ebenso wie expressionistische Utopien. Mit diesem Engagement wurde Hermand in den achtziger Jahren zum Vorreiter einer ökologischen Kritik von Gesellschaft und Kunst, die inzwischen zum Bestandteil grüner Proklamationen geworden ist.

Mit seiner Fähigkeit, Einzelphänomene im Zusammenhang großer historischer Entwicklungen eingängig zu illuminieren, hat Hermand eine Vielzahl von Neuentdeckungen angestoßen, die der deutschen Kulturgeschichtsschreibung eine zuvor nur selten so stimulierende, oft auch provozierende Note verschafft haben.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Helmut G. Asper (Bielefeld)

We were friends since many years and when he came over to Germany for conferences or lecturing at universities we used to meet each other and talked about new books – he usually had written a new one every year – and his new projects. I had known his early books (Naturalismus or Kultur der Weimarer Republik for instance) long before I met him personally. I always admired his inexhaustible knowledge as well as his ability for lucid analysis and of course in my own studies I am influenced by him, as so many colleagues of my generation have been.

I will miss him, but his books will carry on his spirit and I’m sure they will inspire many future generations – and in Madison you have also a living memory with the Jost Hermand Oak Tree, which I thought was a wonderful present for his 90th Birthday.

Jost Hermand at the unveiling of the plaque in the Allen Centennial Garden (UW-Madison, August 2020)

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Michael Niedermeier (Berlin)

Jost Hermand’s last two books are still on my desk: Völker hört die Signale and Oasen der Utopie. As always, I am impressed by the variety of topics in the texts and his tremendous productivity. It was intimidating and inspiring at the same time. I’m glad we were still in touch recently and had a brief conversation. And again, he has already announced his next two books: DIE WA(H)RE KUNST. Deutsche Kultur im Zeichen sozioökonomischer Wandlungsprozesse; the other: Hearing Music in a Different Key. Ideological Implications in Works of German Music. His comment on it: what else am I supposed to do in Corona isolation? I’ll just keep on walking in the Arboretum and writing.

We met in 1995 when I came to Madison on a fellowship. Although I didn’t know him and (as an East German) admittedly had read relatively few of his publications at that time, I came to Madison primarily because of him. And I am glad that we understood each other very well right from the beginning; I was even allowed to use his office at Van Hise Hall. It was a great honor and privilege for me to have been invited by him, to discuss with him and even to contribute some of my writings. Of course, it was always clear to me that he was playing in a different league. In his opinions Jost was always very confident in his argumentation and decisive. And when we disagreed, he addressed it and was open to any suggestions. I enjoyed the conversations very much; they were exciting and extraordinarily stimulating. In later years, we always met when he was in Berlin. For me, Jost was a warm friend and an important mentor.

Together, we have cultivated a passionate interest in two subject areas. Both have something to do with trees: the GermanicWaldromantik from the Enlightenment to the wars of liberation and the green utopias of life in literature and art. Therefore, the fact that his close friends, colleagues, and students christened a young oak tree in his name in the Allen Centennial Garden on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in honor of his 90th birthday a year ago seemed like a really splendid idea to me as well. Jost was an ardent garden walker and visitor; the large UW Arboretum, located not far from Jost’s home, was one of his favorite outdoor places. Jost therefore did not suspect anything when Carol Poore, Sabine Gross, and Marc Silberman, his friends and colleagues from his German Department (now Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic+), lured him to the Allen Centennial Garden last August 30 under false pretenses: They claimed they wanted to take pictures of him to reassure his many out-of-town friends who were worried about his well-being under Covid conditions.

But then his surprise was immense when a memorial plaque with his name became visible in front of the young oak tree, which had finally been found as a suitable photo motif, covered by leaves. Fittingly, the memorial plaque is mounted on a boulder. Our jubilarian, as Marc reported, was speechless for quite a while at first. Such a thing did not happen so often otherwise. The Jost Hermand Oak will – if the future wills it – remind us of him for a very long time. The fact that the tree is an oak has a high symbolic value and describes Jost’s life, work, and scientific activity in several meaningful ways.

Ever since the völkisch ideologists usurped it for themselves in the nineteenth century, “the German oak” has in general stood for a “Teutonic,” Germanic national myth. As an important symbol in the propagandistic visual arsenal of the Nazis, the tree is identified in retrospect above all with pre-fascist ideology. Because the pagan Germanic tribes had crushed the imperial Romans in the Teutoburg Forest, the fascists wove the tree into an aggressive national myth to justify the “natural” superiority of the Germans over all different and allegedly hostile foreigners. The oak thus became a defining image in the Nazi ideological puzzle for the chauvinistic justification of the barbaric destruction of “non-Aryan” life.

The Jost Oak grows in the botanical garden on the campus of his adopted university along with trees and plants that originate from other geographic areas of the world. Appropriately, it was planted in a special section of the Allen Garden, the Wisconsin Woodland section. From this planting order, one might infer various allegorical allusions to Jost and his preoccupation with the natural landscape as well. Jost’s scientific study of the motif of the oak in German cultural history revealed another patriotic, a national-liberal line of tradition for the period between the Enlightenment and the wars of liberation. In this context, the oak tree also stood as a symbol for national unity, freedom, liberal community, and ancestral homeland. Jost demonstrated on the basis of the art and literature of the time: this motif of the “old freedom” of the Germanic peoples ranged from the old-state idea of the empire to the German-national pathos of the war of liberation, and even to Heine and beyond.

It must have struck his liberal Jewish friends Jan Bialistocky, Walter Grab, Hans Mayer, George Mosse, and Felix Pollak, who had all once been persecuted by the Nazis, as paradoxical. George Mosse, who devoted his entire research life to the historical examination of German National Socialism after being compelled to flee his German homeland and finally, like Jost, establishing his home in Madison, Wisconsin, could not at first make friends with Jost’s ideas in this regard. The Germanic-Teutonic painting “Cäcilia Tschudi as Valkyrie” (1813) by Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, which he saw in Jost’s living room, was understandably met with disdain at first. He interpreted the portrait of the bronze-age dressed, blue-eyed forest warrior with an oak wreath in her reddish-blond hair, armed with two spears and peering at her opponents, as a propaganda picture in the style of the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädel).

In the course of his long research life, Jost – based on his many research works on Klopstock, Caspar David Friedrich, Kleist, Beethoven, Heine, or Fidus – has conclusively elaborated this forgotten national-liberal tradition and its revolutionary potential in its commitment to a free society in numerous essays, speeches and books. These include the relevant chapters in his books Der alte Traum vom neuen Reich. Völkische Utopien und Nationalsozialismus, in “Revolutio Germanica. Die Sehnsucht nach der ‘alten Freiheit’ der Germanen,” in his Beethoven book or in his Politische Denkbilder.

It meant a lot to Jost personally that in later years George Mosse revised this earlier judgment of the the Valkyrie painting from the time of the Wars of Liberation. (“I stand corrected.”)

For Jost, however, the oak tree does not represent merely a different, liberal national-patriotic Germany in this context of cultural criticism. As one of the first Germanists and cultural scholars, Jost has repeatedly devoted himself to the topics of ecology, environmental protection, and green utopias of life. The result is to be found in books such as Grüne Utopien in Deutschland, Mit den Bäumen sterben die Menschen. Zur Kulturgeschichte der Ökologie, and Ökologische Dringlichkeitspostulate in den Kultur- und Geisteswissenschaften. In countless academic lectures, at many conferences and public events, Jost has enthusiastically contributed his analyses and reflections to the discussion, even in times when this kind of interventionist research, which openly committed itself to a social and a nature-conscious responsibility, was met with a rather snobbish attitude in the general scientific community.

Even in private, Jost appreciated the simple, even spartan life. Above all, he loved the natural world, the natural garden, the animals, and he was extraordinarily well acquainted with flora and fauna. And when the world of humanities research began to make more and more use of digital technologies, Jost continued to type his 80 or so books, his countless essays and speeches on his old, manual Adler typewriter at home. He himself never touched the fine PC in his office in Van Hise Hall, which I gazed at when we first met. Until the end, Jost had no Internet and hardly ever used his cell phone – he never even made use of a smartphone.

Even though he knew that this made him seem somewhat out of time, he got along very well without such utilities. Jost hated any kind of waste of energy and the littering of nature caused by capitalist consumer society. He did not attach much importance to outward appearances: he got along with little. He did not drink alcohol, hardly ate any meat, and had a rather spartan diet.  And even though, like many of his generation, Jost smoked cigarettes in public all the time, he was, in fact, only an occasional, communal, and embarrassed smoker, without any addictive urges.

Jost’s research was always uncomfortable, because it never conformed to a zeitgeist and remained provocative and innovative to the end. He never allowed himself to be driven by academic fashions and theoretical theories that were out of step with the era. His analyses always proceeded directly from the concrete works of art in the visual arts, music, and literature. He always analyzed them in their relationship to the political and social processes of their time. Only against this concrete historical background did he examine the works of art and literary texts for their social relevance today and their usefulness for the present.

Jost saw himself as an enlightener; he wanted to reach a broad audience and share his enormous knowledge with them. He was not impressed by polemical accusations, neither from the right nor from the left. He knew how to wield a sharp blade himself and did not avoid polemical confrontation. Such fearless commitment to speak out in public, even against prevailing opinion, has become extremely rare in the meantime, and not only in university discourse. At a point when a self-righteous “offended generation” has conquered the “air sovereignty over the seminar tables,” Jost’s books represent a new challenge once again. And this is precisely because his unadjusted left-liberal commitment, in contrast to a moralizing militant activism that only pretends to be left-wing, is fundamentally based on an enormous wealth of historical knowledge and experience, which finds mirrored in art and literature the testimonies of the cultural and political developments of the time. He continuously worked on enlightenment: fortunately for us and also for those who come after him. He put his enormous, broad knowledge and his incredible memory in the service of a liberal idea, always driven by his early personal experiences as a “Pimpf in Polen.”

For many reasons, it is more than likely that his work will again attract both immense academic and public attention in the future. And this does not only concern his works on ecology and culture, where he has been a pioneer. His unconditional cultural-historical approach, which always analyzed art and literature from the perspective of the respective historical period, will gain new relevance after the current period of rampant historical forgetfulness. I am optimistic about this.

To die at the Lecturer’s podium had characteristically been his wish. The fact that he was so suddenly torn from his productive daily work is comforting, despite all the sadness about the huge loss of this dedicated, exceptional scholar.

The Hermand Oak in the Allen Centennial Garden on his university’s campus will serve as a living memorial to Jost. It stands in the Wisconsin Woodland section of the botanical garden. Like Jost Hermand, the tree made its home in Wisconsin. The honorary plaque, mounted on an old freestone, aptly quotes the first line of a poem by Jost’s favorite poet, Heinrich Heine: “Es erklingen alle Bäume”

Jost Hermand at the unveiling of the Jost-Eiche and plaque at the Allen Centennial Garden (August 2020)

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Peter Beicken (College Park)

Im Oktober 1977 gab Jost einen Vortrag zum musikalischen Expressionismus in Washington, D.C., und anschließend in unserer Abteilung in Maryland, wo ich die Ehre hatte, ihn einzuführen. Josts Ausführungen waren wie üblich fundiert, aber auch kontrovers, wie so manche Reaktionen zeigten. Ich fand seine Thesen überzeugend, und zwei Jahre später waren meine Frau und ich in Madison, wo wir eingeladen waren, Jost und seine Frau Elisabeth zu besuchen. Es wurde ein langer Nachmittag mit Kaffee und Kuchen und angeregter Unterhaltung. Natürlich wusste ich, dass Jost viel von der expressionistischen Musik und der Moderne verstand. Aber ich war doch sehr angetan und meine Frau auch, die sich besonders für die Aufführungspraxis alter Musik interessierte, dass Jost diese Musik ebenso kannte und schätzte. Für mich war es ein Beispiel von Josts breitgefächerten Interessen und seinen umfassenden Kenntnissen. Was mir sehr gefiel: Jost war kein Gefangener einer engen germanistischen Box. In den bildenden Künsten, in der Kunstgeschichte war er ebenso zu Hause wie in der Musik und der Literatur. Als sein Band Konkretes Hören. Zum Inhalt der Instrumentalmusik 1981 erschien, hatte ich Gelegenheit, sehr zustimmend seine Einsichten und Analysen zu besprechen. Ich habe Jost immer als einzigartigen Universalgelehrten verstanden und geschätzt. Er hatte die Leidenschaft eines wissenden Untersuchers, die frappanten Klarheiten eines rigorosen Analytikers und die unbedingte Treue zu seinen tiefen Einsichten und ihrer geschichtlich-politischen Bedeutsamkeit. Jost war ein beispielhafter Nachfahre der Aufklärung und des Engagements. Er hat auf sehr viele Schüler, Studenten, Leser und KollegInnen erkenntnis-und lebensbestimmend eingewirkt. Er hat Schule gemacht als ein ganz einzigartiger Lehrer. Er war von ganz besonderem Format. Ich denke an ihn und vermisse ihn als eine Leuchtfigur, die in passionierter Sprache das Licht der Erkenntnis versprühte. Welch herrliches Gedenken mir so bleibt!

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Sabine Kebir (Berlin)

[See also Sabine Kebir’s German-language interview published in e-cibs with Jost Hermand in 2018 at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus on the occasion of his new Brecht book Die aufhaltsame Wirkungslosigkeit eines Klassikers (Theater der Zeit).]

Adieu, lieber Jost!

Mit Dir ist ein Germanist von uns gegangen, der die besten sozialistischen Kulturtraditionen Deutschlands in die USA vermittelt hat – zu denken ist nicht nur an Bertolt Brecht. In allen Deinen Arbeiten hast Du kulturhistorische, soziale und politische Gesichtspunkte in ihrem engen Zusammenhang behandelt und damit der postmodernen Verengung auf unhistorische Ästhetisierung entgegen gewirkt. Deinen Einfluss auf die Germanistik der USA habe ich bei vielen Kollegen feststellen können und ich hätte mir einen ähnlichen Einfluss auf die Germanistik der Bundesrepublik gewünscht. Um so wichtiger war Dein bis in die letzten Jahre fortgesetztes intensives Engagement für die Literatur- und Kulturaktivitäten der Gewerkschaft Ver.di.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Jost with his Doktorkinder, 1970s


Janet Swaffar (Austin)

Jost Hermand had just been hired in 1958, when – after a Fulbright year in Germany and study at the University of Göttingen ­– I came to the University of Wisconsin’s Department of German. World War Two had taken its toll on the department: the sign designating its location had had to be withdrawn, and the faculty was almost without students during the war, or involved in teaching German to soldiers about to be sent to the Western front. Enrollments increased after the war, in part due to the large number of American armed forces stationed in Germany. In 1958-59, when he was teaching undergraduate as well as graduate courses, I worked with Professor Hermand toward my M.A. degree. Like my fellow students, I found this extraordinary teacher invariably accessible for working with students. He and his wife Elisabeth invited those of us in his seminars to their home for Abendbrot and discussions. Hermand was a man with a mind for all seasons. His lectures and seminar discussions were based on an extensive knowledge of art, music, and history in conjunction with his sovereign command of the history and works of German literature, particularly those from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Under his direction, in 1965 I completed my Ph.D. dissertation. These were the days of typewriters and mimeograph machines; computers and xeroxing were still in the future. As I submitted my chapters, I benefited from Professor Hermand’s critical acumen and his practice of giving tasks immediate attention when it came to scholarly work (“Alles gleich machen” – “let’s do this right away”), his gift for knowing what to elaborate and how.

During his early years in the department, Jost Hermand established himself as a leading researcher and publisher of ground-breaking volumes that represented a rethinking of traditional approaches to literary and cultural criticism. Die literarische Formenwelt des Biedermeiers (Gießen: Schmitz, 1958) challenged the generalizations that informed the broad scope of the category Poetic Realism by framing the post-classical period up to 1848 as Biedermeier, regional writing that explored the lives of middle-class citizens living in small communities with restricted social and political opportunities. This term and the book’s case for it in reference to literature, not only the visual arts, were recognized in subsequent studies of German literature and culture. In 1959, Hermand published Naturalismus, the first in the five-volume series Deutsche Kunst und Kultur von der Gründerzeit bis zum Expressionismus in East Berlin’s Akademie-Verlag: Impressionismus, 1960; Gründerzeit, 1965; Stilkunst um 1900, 1967; Expressionismus, 1975. (From 1968 to 1977, each volume also appeared in subsequent editions: e.g., in Munich’s Nymphenberger Verlag and Frankfurt am Main’s Fischer Verlag.) The series was begun by the renowned art historian Richard Hamann who due to frailty could only work on the volume Gründerzeit, while Hermand completed the remaining volumes on his own. Nonetheless, Hamann’s name appeared before his in the entire series. It was Hamann who had given him his first opportunity to publish and also the professional status to obtain a position abroad. Characteristic of Jost Hermand’s generous and appreciative nature, he honored his mentor’s memory in a formidable five-volume series devoted to nineteenth and twentieth-century German cultural history.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Robert Cohen (New York City)

Bei den wenigen Begegnungen, die ich mit Jost hatte, wurden wir Freunde. Zugrunde lag dieser Freundschaft auf meiner Seite der Eindruck von der unmittelbaren Nützlichkeit seines Denkens und seiner Arbeit für meine eigenen Sachen. Vorbild war er durch die Weite seines Wissens ebenso, wie durch die seiner Arbeit unterliegende Haltung, als einem Bestehen darauf, das Zusammenleben der Menschen sei besser zu organisieren, als es zu unserer Zeit der Fall war. Er war der Anti-Tui. Dafür hat er bezahlt, hüben wie drüben. Dass er bis ins hohe Alter nicht von seiner Haltung abließ: auch dafür bewunderte ich ihn. Ich schließe mit einer Wendung, die Hans Mayer – für Jost ein Vorbild, so wie Jost für mich – an den Schluss mehrerer Nachrufe gesetzt hat: “Ehre seinem Andenken”.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Jost in the Allen Centennial Garden (UW-Madison, Summer 2019)

Sabine Gross (Madison)

The very first Germanistik books I purchased and read – as a high-school Gymnasiastin in Germany with an early passion for Brecht – had been authored or edited by Jost Hermand, so a job offer from the renowned Department of German at the UW-Madison with Jost as a colleague almost two decades later, in 1992, was a dream come true. Jost’s scholarly record on Brecht and theater alone, while only a fraction of his overall “output,” would make for a strong academic CV. After an initial job interview during which Jost was a daunting presence on the interview committee, I quickly discovered that he was a most approachable colleague, always happy to share his encyclopedic knowledge and discuss details as I worked on Brecht texts and directed Brecht-inflected performances in German with our students, which he faithfully attended. I remember a Brechtian staging of Büchner’s Leonce und Lena, in particular: I had hoped Jost would sit in the first row – as he did – so that Leonce could direct a line about “Professoren” at him while Brecht (I had put Brecht and Büchner on the side stages as characters and commentators) watched from the wings. I treasure our many live interactions, complemented by the many articles and volumes by Jost that arrived on my bookshelves over the years.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Kristopher Imbrigotta (Tacoma)

[See also the English-language interview with Kristopher Imbrigotta, Marc Silberman, and Jost Hermand published in e-cibs in 2017 about the history of the International Brecht Society]

It is with a heavy heart and much sadness that I write at the death of Jost Hermand, Giant of German Studies. He lived such an amazing life and touched us all in so many ways, both scholarly and personally. Jost was a towering figure who shaped Germanistik like few others in the field. I count myself as extremely fortunate to have experienced Jost as a stellar teacher and as a patient and helpful mentor for my own scholarship, but perhaps most of all as a kind friend. As a graduate student, it was an absolute privilege to serve as Jost’s Project Assistant for his books, articles, and speeches. I will also never forget our many hours in conversation one-on-one at lunch or over coffee and cigarettes – mostly Jost smoking and me drinking the coffee. We talked about our pets, the joys of working in our gardens, and how one doesn’t really have to pay the parking tickets issued by UW police! Most of all, we had Brecht in common. Jost was always interested in my dissertation work, offering his insights to my questions and future directions. I learned so much. Whether standing outside Van Hise Hall on a hot summer day or during the sub zero Wisconsin winter – that never seemed to bother either of us. I still think fondly of those conversations.

He had recently invited me to join him in the position of co-editor of his well-established book series German Life and Civilization (Peter Lang Publishing) – work that now takes on a whole new sense of urgency as I (unexpectedly) begin my role as sole series editor. In this role, I intend to carry on Jost’s legacy while also being mindful of the enormous responsibility it is to assume direction for the series and follow in his great footsteps. In the spirit of Jost Hermand’s work and life, German Life and Civilization will continue to be a home for innovative, groundbreaking, and in-depth scholarship that crosses boundaries and challenges conventional thought for many years to come!

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Sara Lennox (Amherst)

In the Fall of 1966, I took Jost’s seminar “Brechts Bearbeitungen.”  I was then a very naïve and badly-educated young woman from Indiana. As we were discussing Brecht’s Antigone adaptation, I imprudently asked if it weren’t somewhat anachronistic to talk about class struggle when discussing the Greeks. Jost looked at me sternly and said, “Den Klassenkampf hat es schon immer gegeben!” “Ah!” I thought to myself. And for me that was the beginning. Later in the semester I wrote a very long seminar paper on Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe and took to heart Johanna’s words: “und nichts gelte als ehrenhaft mehr, als was/ Diese Welt endgültig ändert: sie braucht es.” So Jost taught me lessons that have guided my life and my career ever since.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Joachim Lucchesi (Schopfheim)

Als im Dezember letzten Jahres der Böhlau Verlag auf Veranlassung von Jost Hermand mir sein Buch „Völker, hört die Signale!“ zuschickte, entdeckte ich darin das Kapitel über Ernst Toller und las über dessen Freitod in einem New Yorker Hotel die Stelle: „Hilde Mosse, seine letzte Freundin, nahm Toller darauf seine Totenmaske ab, die heute im New Yorker Leo Baeck Institute aufbewahrt wird.“ (S. 168)
Darauf schrieb ich an Jost, ihm zu seinem neuen Buch gratulierend und mich dafür bedankend:

„Beim Lesen darin stieß ich im Toller-Kapitel auf etwas. Und da erinnerte ich mich gleich wieder an unsere Nachmittage in Madison in einem Café, wo Du rauchen durftest und mir dort eines Tages empfohlen hattest, Deinen Freund George Mosse zu besuchen. Was ich dann auch tat. Es wurde ein eindrucksvoller Nachmittag bei ihm zu Hause. Über ein kleines Ölgemälde machte er wenig Aufheben (‚das ist von Liebermann, der unsere Familie malte‘). Ausführlicher schon seine Berichte über die gemeinsamen Winterurlaube mit den Furtwänglers in der Schweiz. Bis er dann an der Zimmerwand auf den weißen Gipsabdruck eines Gesichtes wies. Wer das sei? Ich wusste es nicht. ‚Das ist die einzige Totenmaske Ernst Tollers, die meine Schwester Hilde, Tollers letzte Freundin von ihm abnahm.‘“

Und dann schloss ich mein Schreiben an Jost: „Sei herzlichst gegrüßt und bedankt für Erlebtes und Gelesenes!“
Kurz darauf antwortete er mir: „Auch ich denke gern an die damaligen Tage zurück. Hoffentlich bist Du mit Deinem Scherchen-Projekt gut vorangekommen. Ich bin neugierig darauf. Sitze hier momentan total eingeschneit, aber bin immer noch halbwegs guter Dinge. Dir ein gutes und produktives Neues Jahr wünschend, bleibe ich wie immer sehr herzlich Dein Jost“.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Jost in his office in Van Hise Hall (UW-Madison)


Christel Berger (Berlin)

Jost Hermand war ebenso klug wie mutig. Er vertrat gegen alle Widerstände eine Literaturwissenschaft, die immer die gesellschaftlichen und historischen Zusammenhänge herausarbeitete und betonte. Und er ergriff Partei, auch wenn es nicht opportun schien. Sein Wissen schien universell und seine Neugier immens. Jüngeren Kollegen gegenüber war er stets aufgeschlossen  und hilfreich. Als Deutscher in den USA verfolgte er die Entwicklung auch in der DDR und nach dem Mauerfall intensiv und wurde und war ein Freund. Er wird fehlen.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Jost in Berlin (2016, am Wannsee)


Karen Achberger (Northfield, MN)
First, a word about Brecht, perhaps not the first name that comes immediately to mind when we think of Jost Hermand. In spite of his significant contributions to Brecht scholarship, we know, of course, that no single writer or phenomenon can encompass the wide-ranging work of Jost Hermand. Yet the spirit of Brecht seems to pervade Jost’s work. Speaking for myself as a person who cannot read nearly as fast as Jost publishes, I will restrict my comments to his teaching.

I want to share an observation from the Fall 1970 IBS meeting in Milwaukee and then a thought about Brecht’s relevance for Jost’s teaching. During the first IBS meeting, I noticed that one of the distinguished participants sitting in the row right in front of me was sketching a caricature of Jost on his notepad. When I shared this observation with Jost during the break, he seemed uncharacteristically pleased and then mentioned it right away to a few colleagues gathered around us. This was a rare glimpse at a side of Jost I had never encountered, a man who generally kept from saying anything personal about himself.

Regarding Brecht and Jost’s teaching, I believe that, with the exception of Jost’s one seminar on Dramen nach Brecht in Fall 1969, where Brecht was explicitly present in every discussion, we could all however sense the spirit of Brecht pervading virtually every one of Jost’s courses. Whatever the topic, period, or author, we were focused on matters of concern to Brecht (and therefore to all of us), e.g., writing for change, literature as a force for changing the world. 

When I think of Jost, I see a man who loved what he was doing, full of endless energy and taking delight in his work, if you could call it that. At one point, I wanted to make an appointment to discuss my dissertation and asked him which days he would be on campus. When he replied that he had class on Wednesdays, I asked, to be sure: “Mittwoch ist also der Tag, an dem Sie arbeiten?” He smiled and quickly replied, “Nein, Mittwoch ist der Tag, an dem ich nicht arbeite!”

Whether in class or on paper, Jost was obviously having a lot of fun, and so we had a lot of fun, too. For him, it all seemed to be play, not work. In class, it was pure pleasure for him to share with us his interpretation of a work of literature and to contextualize it in the political tensions of its times. He took particular delight in setting the record straight, often with humor, and it was fun to watch Jost in action, happily uncovering fact after fact that previous research had overlooked. We were happy to let ourselves be entertained as he shared his latest insights and joyfully filled in the gaps left by earlier scholars. He was so genuine and brought so much of himself to our class discussions, leaving no doubt as to his values and expectations for a work of art. Once, when we were scheduled to discuss a short narrative by Thomas Mann, he began class with the sober comment: “Er schreibt zu gut!”

Something that is not well known is how considerate and caring Jost was, how hospitable he was, especially to his many students. As our Doktorvater, he invited us into his home for regular Doktorandenseminare for us to give updates on our dissertation progress; it was a gathering that also felt like a family getting together to keep in touch and help one another. Then, as soon as we had successfully defended our dissertations, Jost and his dear wife Elisabeth also hosted a celebration for each of us in their home.

Gathering around Jost like a magnet, we all felt tightly connected to our home in the Madison German Department. We celebrated Jost’s many birthdays and special conferences together, and whenever we came back to Madison, we knew we had come home and would be nourished by our close friendships with our many returning German-family members.

With Jost as our Doktorvater in a department that treated us like family, both my late husband, Friedrich “Fritz” Achberger (Republikbezogene österreichische Literatur in der Zwischenkriegszeit), and I (The German Opera Libretto after 1945) were especially well cared for. It meant so much that again and again, the department was there for us. After the car crash in 1984 that killed our dear Fritz and landed me for weeks in the ICU, I received flowers from the department and a hand-written letter from Jost wishing me a complete recovery from my injuries and reminding me that I was not alone in my loss and grief. The messages from Madison and visits to my hospital bedside were an important comfort for me. 

Like a good parent, Jost played an important role in shaping the person I am today. My years in the department working with him — on days that he saw himself as “not working” (!) —  played a big role in shaping the person I am today; Getting to know him, his values, and his way of thinking has informed the way I think and what I care about personally and professionally. Fritz and I felt especially close to one another due in great part to the common values and ways of thinking and reading that we learned from our Doktorvater, our beloved Jost Hermand.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Jost at his 70th birthday celebration (32nd Wisconsin Workshop, UW-Madison, 2000)

Robert C. Holub (Columbus)

Laudatio for Jost Hermand

This laudation was written and delivered at a celebration of Jost Hermand on the occasion of his 80th birthday (2010). The author at the time was the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

When Klaus Berghahn called me last spring and asked me to deliver the laudatio on the occasion of this celebration for Jost Hermand, I immediately agreed. Well, almost immediately. Klaus told me that in the past celebrations for Jost, the laudatio had been delivered by a colleague, and that it was fitting for one of his students to assume this role. I considered and thought, yes, one of his students should step forward and deliver a laudatio, but there was Klaus on the phone asking me, and I was in the middle of a short break between what seem like endless meetings on various and sundry campus policies and strategies, and he was expecting an immediate answer. So I said yes, happy to be of service to Klaus, who seemed to heave a big sigh of relief, and honored that I had been selected by him among all of Jost’s students to sing his praises in an after-dinner tribute.

I forgot about the laudatio until the summer, since I had asked my assistant to set aside some time in July for me to reflect and write it. But when those days arrived, I soon realized that I knew next to nothing about how to compose a laudatio, and that anyway writing such a speech was going to be a daunting task because of the individual being praised and his many accomplishments. I thought as a first step I’d better get a handle on what a laudatio is by considering what category of oration it belongs to. I am not inexperienced at standing before an audience and delivering academic talks; I’ve done so, not as long as Jost has and certainly not as proficiently, but for more than thirty years now. And lately I’ve become quite adept at making power-point presentations to faculty, trustees, and others about issues at UMass, especially on the budget and campus finances. A laudatio, however, was a genre in which I had only passive experience.

Initially it occurred to me that a laudatio was related to a eulogy, except that most eulogies I had heard were of the type laudatio funebris, where the subject of praise was unable to enjoy the encomia of the laudator. Searching a bit in the history of such speeches, I soon ran across the panegyric, a lofty oration written in praise of a person or thing, which is what the Romans understood as a laudatio. The nature of the panegyric is that it is delivered, as the etymology of the word indicates, at a public gathering, and although it has occasionally acquired a negative connotation in recent times, for all intents and purposes it can be considered a synonym for a laudatio. So I took a look at the twelve Panegirici Latini, compiled in the late fourth century and discovered in manuscript in 1433, to see whether I could discern anything of use to me. In glancing at these obsequious orations directed at Roman Emperors, I could have adapted the beginning of the fourth panegyric composed by Nazarius in praise of emperor Constantine in the following manner:

As I am about to voice the majestic praises of Jost Hermand, who towers as far above the teachers of all ages as other teachers are distant from their students, and as I am about to speak in an assemblage of exultant rejoicing and impassioned delight, which the octogenarian celebration has made more overwhelming than usual, I realize that no eloquence can be either desired or imagined which could impart a grace worthy of the occasion or an amplitude worthy of the material or a capability worthy of your favor, since the eager and blessed devotion of all men makes an especial display of itself at this time.

Besides the fact that these types of sentences are a bit lengthy, even for a scholar of German, they don’t seem to strike exactly the right tone. So I turned to a few other types of oration for further guidance.

The fact that the speech was to occur after dinner gave me the idea that it might be related to a slightly less exalted genre, the American roast. “Du sublime au ridicule il n’est qu’un pas,” Napoleon is reputed to have uttered in 1812 after his evacuation of Moscow. And although I recognize that humor and wit should not be absent from the laudatio, I wasn’t ready to go all the way to the ridiculous. Besides, anything with origins in the New York Friars’ Club in the 1920s and a tradition that stretches through the Dean Martin Show in the 1960s and 1970s and, more recently, Comedy Central, and whose practitioners include Don Rickles and Joan Rivers seemed inapposite for what we are trying to do this evening. Other thoughts on genre quickly followed: it must have something of the scholarly introduction, since, as I under­stood it, the subject of the laudatio usually speaks afterwards, and I couldn’t imagine that Jost would forgo the opportunity to address us this evening. But it must also partake of the memoir, since the encomiast is encouraged to give private and privileged insights into the remarkable accomplishments of his subject and to relate to his audience incidents based on personal experience. It is here that I will end my preludial, pre-laudatory prolego­mena, and begin the laudatio Josti Hermandi proper.

Let me be frank: when I arrived in Madison in 1973, I had never heard of Jost Hermand. That wasn’t really surprising, because I knew very little about criticism or secondary literature or scholarship, when I began graduate studies in Comparative Literature, especially since I had majored in natural sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. The only reason I was a bit more proficient in German than in any other language was that, having determined I was going to be a comparatist, I thought I should start on German before French since it was the more difficult of the two languages. But once in Madison, the legend of Jost Hermand reached my ears quite rapidly. At that point Madison had cooled off considerably from the most radical moments during the student movement. Contributing to the swift deterio­ra­tion of student activities was the tragedy at the Army Math Research Center, but also the winding down of the war in Viet­nam. But the radical and critical spirit that dominated the cam­pus for so long found a welcome home on the eighth floor of Van Hise Hall, where students were engaged in a political fashion in their classroom debates around German literature and culture, in the discipline of German and its place in the United States, and in extracurricular activities on and off the campus. A collective in the German Department organized to support the journal New German Critique, which published its first issue in the winter of 1973. Of the editors: David Bathrick was a recently hired faculty member in Madison; Anson Rabinbach received his degree in history from Wisconsin in 1973; and Jack Zipes and the associate editor, Andreas Huyssen, were professors at UW Milwaukee. Women in German was also spurred on during the 1970s by activities in our department, and I recall that the men in the department were often “recruited” by the women to assist them with chores like licking envelopes for mailings. The Teaching Assistants Association, the union representing graduate assis­tants and affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, continued its activities on campus and was particularly strong in the German Department. In seminars on documentary theater, Bert Brecht, or Heinrich Heine, and in courses on literature of the GDR, German film, or aesthetic theory students sharpened their ideological talons, shredding long-cherished platitudes along with anything suspected of supporting the status quo.

The heart and soul of these activities was Jost Hermand. He wasn’t, of course, demonstrating against the war or picketing with the union. But the students in the department knew that Jost was the most important voice in support of radical critique, that he was an ardent supporter of the rethinking of traditions in German Studies, and that his teaching and example were suppor­tive of the fundamental questioning of norms and values that students and young faculty members championed. Jost was not an adherent of the new left; but he defended its positions and en­gaged with its advocates in productive debate and discussion. Jost was not himself a union activist; but he had a healthy re­spect for workers and their organized activities. He was not the initiator of feminist criticism; but he recognized the equality of women and the history of discrimination against them. He was not the originator of gay studies; but when someone like Jim Steakly came to the department in 1977 with an openly gay agenda, Jost demonstrated beyond a doubt that he welcomed this necessary addition to the campaign for social justice. Jost was the inaugurator of many important trends in German Studies, not least among them eco-criticism, and students admired him for his persistence and insistence in areas that promoted radical democ­racy. But when he was challenged to reexamine his own ideas in light of equally radical tendencies, he did not hesitate to lend his support, modifying his views when necessary.

I’d like to think that the decade of the 1970s was as important a time for Jost as it was for the students who studied with him in the German Department. Certainly it was a decade in which more stu­dents worked with Jost than at any other time during his pro­fes­sional career. In all twenty dissertations were completed from 1971-1980; in 1979, when I finished my thesis, I was one of five doctoral candidates to receive a Ph.D. under Jost’s aegis, the high­est number of doctorates directed by Jost in any single year. Stu­dents flocked to his lectures and seminars; at times the number of auditors equaled or surpassed the number of enrolled stu­dents. He was our mentor and our role model for what a professor should be, but he was unfortunately a role model none of us could live up to. Who could manage to read so much so quickly? Who could write so many interesting books and articles on such a great variety of topics, not only about literature, but also about art, music, and general culture? Who could lecture from scant notes about so many topics, keeping in mind not only the general­ities that emanated from the material, but also the details that supported those general conclusions? Jost was an inspiration, to be sure, but because his standards are so high, because his knowl­edge is so vast, and his insight and creativity are so im­mense, I fear that it was difficult for his students to follow in his footsteps. Jost once told me that in the question period following a lecture he gave on Nazi utopias, a fellow German professor stood up and sarcastically thanked him for “reading all of those long novels for us.” The dilemma facing Jost’s students is that they felt they should read all those novels too and be able to make something coherent out of their reading, but most were unable to do so. I’d wager to say that the total number of vol­umes published by his students together falls short of his own immense book productivity. Jost is the only writer of secondary literature for whom I have an entire bookshelf in my home. Most critics are integrated into my collection under categories or authors about whom they wrote. Only Jost is sui generis.

I can’t prove that the 1970s were an especially productive period for Jost, but he certainly was busy. Besides directing twenty dissertations, he taught at three different institutions as a guest professor and went on tours that took him through England, Ireland, Sweden, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. When he wasn’t teaching, mentoring, or lecturing, he evidently was down in his basement working his two index figures to the bone on his manual typewriter. He published eight volumes or essay collections under sole authorship and two where he was listed as a co-author (although he did the vast majority of the research and writing for these volumes). Included in this period are his vastly influential monograph on pop art, two books on Heine, and the fifth and sixth volume of his cultural history of Germany since the Gründerzeit, Expressionismus and Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik. Together with the later volumes on the cultural history of the Federal Republic, this extraordinary project marks, in my humble view, the most important contri­bution Jost has made to an understanding of Germany, its artis­tic tendencies, and the political implications of art, literature, and music. In an astounding display of erudition and insight covering over a century of German culture, with these eight volumes Jost has established a lasting legacy as a critic and a scholar. Although Jost is perfectly capable of parsing a poem and performing close readings, his forte has always been his ability to discern trends and tendencies, and to explain implications of writers, artists, composers, and their works in an intricate historical context.

But Jost’s productivity during the 1970s is hardly at an end with his books. I count close to 90 articles in volumes or journals with topics ranging from analyses of works by Caspar David Friedrich, Hanns Eisler, and Heiner Müller to essays on the history of the German national anthem and the periodization of Biedermeier and Restauration. During the decade Jost delivered somewhere close to 190 presentations at conferences and as a guest lecturer at institutions around the globe. One of his most important accomplish­ments, which attracts less notice than it should, is the appearance in 1973 of the sixth volume of Heine’s Sämtliche Werke, the first installment to appear in the so-called “Düsseldorfer Ausgabe.” For those people who associate Jost solely with grand state­ments about historical tendencies and ideologies, this volume will serve to correct that erroneous impression. It is filled with the detailed historical work of a genuine scholar and editor, and served as a model for later volumes in that edition. And there’s more: Starting in 1970 the volumes of the Wisconsin Workshop began to appear, marking a significant turning point in German Studies here and abroad. Edited together with Reinhold Grimm, these collections often took up the uncomfortable and controversial topics of German Studies: the legend of German classicism, popular literature, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, or fascism and the avant-garde. The 1970s also saw the appearance of two journals that Jost co-edited: Basis and the Brecht Jahrbuch. If I recall correctly, in these publications one could find an occasional book review authored by Jost under one pseudonym or another.

The 1970s were an enormously productive time for Jost, and they left indelible impressions on the students of the era. Not all these impressions were without some humor. Jost, as we all know, gets very caught up in his lectures. For this anecdote it’s impor­tant to recall that cigarette smoking, which is unimaginable in today’s classroom where smoking is often not allowed within 20 feet of a building, if it is allowed at all on campus, was nothing unusual for students or professors in the 1970s. Now Jost is one of those individuals who had difficulty giving up smoking, even though he wanted to do so many times. Mathematically ex­pressed, one could say that for every n times he quit, he started up again on n + 1 occasions. On one particular afternoon in one or another classroom in Van Hise Hall, Jost was imparting to us his views on some topic – bourgeois realism or perhaps the cultural tendencies in the Federal Republic – when he lit a cigarette. Engrossed in his topic, as we all were too, the ash grew longer and longer, as Jost continued to lecture without taking a puff. When the ash grew long enough that it was in danger of becoming detached from the unlit paper and tobacco, Jost turned toward the wastebasket and elegantly flicked the ash into it, and returned then to his lectern where he continued his exposition. Unfortunately the ash was attached to a portion of the cigarette that was still burning, and because students from a previous class had evidently decided to rid themselves of unwanted lecture notes in this particular wastebasket, the contents began to smolder and then to flame. At one point Jost must have noticed out of the cor­ner of his eye what his otherwise attentive audience had already seen: a veritable conflagration inside the ugly metal tapered cylinder. Without interrupting his lecture, he walked over to the wastebasket, stomped inside it with his foot until he had extin­guished the flames, then calmly marched back to the lectern, where he promptly lit another cigarette and continued his presentation.

Permit me to indulge in one further recollection. It occurred in the late 1970s at 2154 Fox Avenue, the erstwhile home of Dick and Hopi Gesteland, where during this time the German Depart­ment had frequent and sometimes quite raucous celebrations. The occasion was Fasching, I believe, and the students, true to tradi­tion, composed a skit mocking their beloved faculty. We decided to do a parody of a departmental meeting. The lead role in this farce was played by Fred Sommers, the most theatrical of our cohort, who gave his impressions of Valters Nollendorfs, a.k.a. Nolens Volens. I can’t recall the exact content of the skit – I remember vaguely something about debating departmental requirements – but I can tell you that we made an effort to mimic some of the most obvious characteristics of the professoriate. We had Klaus Berghähnchen, Reinhold der Grimmiger, and Schoko­lade Brancaforte, all represented ably by one or another gradu­ate student. I played David Bathtub, and since at that point I was probably a hundred pounds lighter than David, I wore a loose sweatshirt and stuffed throw pillows in it to bulk up instantly. My acting consisted of gesticulating wildly in the air while speaking of dialectical relationships. Carol Poore received the honor of playing Jost Hermannsschlacht, and in this role she was called upon to whisk out of her eyes the hair that inevitably fell gently across her face in the course of intensive conversation. The skit was a huge success, and afterwards individual faculty members came to us to let us know how well we had captured others, although they weren’t quite certain that we had gotten them right.

When I was appointed chancellor of the University of Massa­chusetts, Amherst in May of 2008 and I learned that the same month Biddy Martin had been recruited for the identical position in Madison, I remarked that it was a tremendous coincidence, but also a credit to the German Department in Madison, that two former graduate students were now leading public flagship research institutions with such progressive traditions. Maybe it wasn’t such a coincidence, however, and in thinking about this laudatio, I considered what Biddy and I – and by extension Jost’s other students – learned from him that might have assisted us on our career paths. We certainly got something more than German literary and cultural history, something more than the ideological currents that influenced Germany’s historical trajectory, some­thing more than how to understand the intellectual tendencies in Central Europe since the French Revolution. Although Jost him­self may feel at times that Biddy and I failed him since we wan­dered away from the true course of scholarly endeavor into the crude universe of managerial rationality, I can’t help but think that there was somewhere a surplus value to his teaching that has guided and assisted us as we try to cope with larger issues of education and its place in our respective states and in the nation. Let me speak briefly of five lessons I think Jost imparted to us that go beyond German, German Studies, and his brilliant insights into German and European culture.

The first lesson is that we are all bound to our own era, that no one can really jump over their shadow. I recall Jost saying on a number of occasions that no one is ahead of their times, and then adding hastily that the appearance of being ahead of one’s time is assisted by the fact that there are so many who are behind their times. This insight has had its greatest implications for my scholarly work, which I now consider in retrospect to have been an endeavor, similar to what Jost did, to situate authors, think­ers, movements, theories, and philosophies in an historical con­text. But Jost’s insight also has a more practical value: it has also helped me to understand students and their parents who con­tact me with their problems and concerns; faculty members on the campuses where I have served as an administrator, whose tem­poral limitations are sometimes accompanied by an under­stand­able, albeit regrettably narrow focus on their discipline and on one type of knowledge; and the general public, legislators, and alumni, whose vision of a campus is quite often an image that per­sists in memory rather than an instantiation of reality. Recog­nizing, as Jost taught us, that change emanates from the present, not from leaps of fantasy and not from recapturing some mythi­cal Golden Age, has helped me in my present role, and has given me, and probably many others who learned from him, an advan­tage in dealing with situations that are sometimes quite challenging.

Jost also taught and taught by example the importance of achievement or Leistung. I learned quite early on that the best predictor of what someone will accomplish in the next ten years can be gleaned from what he or she has done for the past decade. I recall that Jost once spoke to me about a colleague who claimed he needed a sabbatical to write a book. Jost’s response was that people don’t write books because they have time off; they write books because they write books. For someone who has written so many books, Jost’s observation may seem a bit glib. But what he was expressing, I believe, or at least what I understood by his remark, was the need for individuals to apply themselves no matter what adversities they face, and that they should not allow external circumstances to serve as an excuse for lack of achieve­ment. A prominent English professor, who consented to support my career with recommendations on numerous occasions, said much the same thing: don’t tell me why you couldn’t accomplish what you set out to do, he admonished; tell me instead what you’ve done. So for a number of years, when speaking to my staff, my mantra as an administrator has been: “please don’t enumerate all the obstacles that prevent us from advancing; let me know instead what we are doing to move forward.” And, thanks to Jost, I hold myself to the same standard in reporting to my superiors.

A third lesson students could glean from Jost is that communi­cation should be the primary goal of discourse. Bucking many of the trends in the humanities, Jost insisted that his prose and his speeches should be accessible to a large audience, that his work should not be strictly an academic affair. My own work followed this example, I hope, since my goal was to clarify and demon­strate in a lucid fashion, not to obfuscate with fancy theoretical terms and obscure allusions. I think that Jost taught us to under­stand difficult texts and to deal with abstruse critical theories. But at the same time he placed a premium on communication with other intelligent and open-minded human beings. Certainly as an administrator I have taken this lesson to heart and sought to be transpicuous and candid about my priorities and goals, and about the measures that need to be taken to achieve progress.

A fourth element in the surplus value we enjoyed as Jost’s students was an inviolable optimism about the future, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This optimism stems, I believe, from his confidence in the causes that he supports, and it has remained steadfast even with transformations and vacilla­tions in the political realm and disappointments in decisions that have been made and problems that have been ignored. Analysis and critique for Jost were never simply negative moments; they always pointed to something better, to solutions, to a struggle that must be engaged if we are to move forward. In the face of rather daunting developments it is sometimes hard for us to main­tain optimism about the future. The financial situation we have been confronting for the past two years has the potential to set higher education back many decades, and the failure of our government to address environmental issues with the requisite urgency could result in lasting damage to our planet and future generations. But Jost has always advocated that we must move forward from where we currently stand and that persistence and reason will ultimately vanquish the forces that stand in the way of progress. Optimism of the will has always overcome and negated any pessimism of the intellect in Jost’s teachings. Indeed, his key interest in utopian thought throughout his career, to which we paid tribute the past few days with this conference, is a testimony to the fundamental optimism he harbors and communi­cates to his students. As Jost told us in the keynote address: uto­pian thinking is a necessity.

Finally, I want to make reference to a quality that may not readily come to mind: Jost’s compassion. In preparation for this laudatio I decided to go back and read Jost’s autobiographical writings. Much of the discussion in Zuhause und anderswo I had heard from Jost himself on one occasion or another, or had experienced myself as a student in Madison: the most fascinating parts are the initial chapters detailing activities in the first decade and a half after the Second World War. But it was the other autobiographical text, Als Pimpf in Polen, that brought again to my attention the essential humanity behind Jost’s career. I can imagine that this book was the most difficult one Jost has ever written, but perhaps also the most necessary for explaining his essential motivations and feelings. I don’t want to be too psychoanalytical about Jost or to identify simply another confirmation of Wordsworth’s dictum that the child is father of the man. But I do believe that Jost’s advocacy of equality, fairness, democracy, and social justice cannot be separated from his experiences with the very opposite features from his youth under National Socialism. As a faculty member, an adminis­trator, and now as the leader of a campus it behooves me – and all of Jost’s students – to affirm and foster the compassion as well as the passion that are at the foundation of Jost’s teaching.

My only remaining obligation as the laudator this evening is, speaking on my behalf and on behalf of all his students, to thank Jost for everything he has done for us. In extending thanks, I return of course to the gratiarum actio, which is the essence of the panegyric composed by Pliny the Younger for the Emperor Trajan in 100 AD, and which served as the paradigm for the laudatio throughout the later part of the Roman Empire. Pliny was expressing his gratitude to Trajan for bestowing on him a consulship. Our thanks go to Jost not for him granting us some exalted post, but for allowing us to learn from him what we needed for our profession and for our lives. Thank you, Jost, and, belatedly, many happy returns on your eightieth birthday.

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


The oak tree planted in celebration of Jost’s 90th birthday (April 2020)

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]


Obituaries and Reflections from Around the World / Nachrufe aus aller Welt

“Defining the Discipline”
Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic (University of Wisconsin)

“Der Unerschrockene”
Süddeutsche Zeitung (Peter Richter)

“Erinnerung an Jost Hermand”
Hans-Mayer-Gesellschaft (Heinrich Bleicher)

“Geschichtsbewusster Grenzgänger”
Neues Deutschland (Erik Zielke)

“Die Gründe der Zersplitterung”
Junge Welt (Jürgen Pelzer)

“Zum Tode von Jost Hermand”
Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht Verlag

“A Tribute to Jost Hermand, Beloved Colleague”
Peter Lang Publishing (Kristopher Imbrigotta)

Nachruf für Jost Hermand
Klaus R. Scherpe (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

Erinnerung an Jost Hermand
Heinrich Bleicher (ver.di)

[Back to CONTRIBUTORS]