Gordon Craig Obituary: Wrestled With Germany's Past

Historians in the News

In the summer of 1935, the American historian Gordon Craig, who has died aged 91, toured Germany with a group of Princeton undergraduates. His experiences with the Nazi regime, then just two years in power, began an engagement with the German question that would last for seven decades.

The trip also had a more immediate impact on Craig's future: a chance meeting with a Rhodes scholar led him to apply for a scholarship, which, much to his surprise, he won. He arrived at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1936 to spend two of the most important years of his life. Study with BH Sumner and EL Woodward, two of Britain's finest historians, deepened his knowledge of European affairs. After his Oxford BLitt, in 1938 he returned to Princeton, completing his doctoral dissertation a few months before the US entered the second world war. After working in the Office of Strategic Services, he served with the marines in the south Pacific.

Craig was born in Glasgow but emigrated to Canada as a child, before moving to the US. He taught at Princeton until 1961, when he went to Stanford University; in 1969, he became JE Wallace Sterling professor of humanities. At both universities, he was extraordinarily successful in the classroom. Beautifully written and flawlessly delivered, his lectures introduced generations of students to the drama of European history.

Craig's scholarship was distinguished by both depth and breadth. He first made his reputation as a historian of diplomacy and military affairs. Two collections that he co-edited, The Makers of Modern Strategy (1943) and The Diplomats, 1919-1939 (1953), instantly became standard works in the field. His first book, The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (1955), remains a classic still worth reading. His best known works are his history of Germany, 1866-1945 (1978), a volume in the Oxford History of Modern Europe, and The Germans (1982), a brilliantly written record of the author's fascination with German politics and culture.

He also published books on the battle of Koniggratz, the end of Prussia, Zurich in the 19th century and the great German novelist, Theodor Fontane. There are three collections of his essays: War, Politics and Diplomacy (1966), The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power, 1770-1871 (1995) and Politics and Culture in Modern Germany: Essays from the New York Review of Books (1999). Throughout his career, he wrote on a variety of topics, but returned again and again to the question he had first confronted in 1935: how could a country like Germany, apparently so civilised and culturally creative, become the source of unparalleled misery and destruction?
Gordon Alexander Craig, historian, born November 26 1913; died October 30 2005

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