Well, so where is one to begin?
According to brief references printed by his publishers (Harvard, University of Illinois, Dorsey) J. Alden Nichols was born in Westerly, R.I. in 1919, graduated from Wesleyan University, obtained his M.A. and PhD. from Columbia University, held a Ford Foundation faculty fellowship and was a Fulbright scholar in Germany. He was a member of the American Historical Association and a founding member of the National History Center. He taught at Wesleyan, Skidmore, was a managing editor for Daedalus, Social Sciences and Humanities editor for the College Department of Ginn & Co., and then spent most of his time at the University of Illinois, where this graduate student first met him in the spring of 1962.
Perhaps the reflections of this graduate student may be too detailed and trivial for some, perhaps not professionally distanced enough for others, perhaps too eclectic and impressionistic for yet a third group. But then I present such as it is because it portrays aspects of the J. Alden Nichols this graduate student has known since 1962: the person, the historian, the teacher: aware, sensitive, nuanced, judicious, humane, impacting unobtrusively, consistently, insistently, ultimately: wise. All who are interested enough to visit these pages (and it is an obituary, not an encyclopedia entry) will at least not object, and hopefully appreciate these shared details. It is especially written with those in mind who retain J. Alden as a constant companion in their daily professional lives.
J. Alden's contribution to Interpreting European History, (vol. II, From Metternich to the Present) edited by Brison D. Gooch, published by The Dorsey Press in 1967, consisted of chapter 9, Bismarck. His presentation choices are indicative: a selection from the undeservedly neglected historian and brilliant stylist Erich Marcks (whose biographical treatment of the early Bismarck, according to J. Alden, “ has remained the most sensitive and profound biographical volume” on Bismarck's youth); a selection from the 1965 Bundestag address by Hans Rothfels, (one of the most influential German post-World War II historians , Meinecke student, national, conservative and until recently with categorically impeccable anti-Nazi credentials); the liberal journalist, financier, and politician Ludwig Bamberger ( exemplary and quintessential liberal Bismarck-admiring Bismarck critic); and the American historian Otto Pflanze,( representing, so J. Alden, “the most recent, readable, and judicious treatment that we have”.)
The German texts have been skillfully rendered into finely nuanced English by J. Alden, preserving the original intent and atmosphere as much as generally translations as such allow, and, in the case of Hans Rothfels, indicates a footnote: “with author's corrections.” The selections deliberately aim to “mix the permanent, basic, almost classic clash of opinions with the change in historical perspective” and the end of his introductory comments brings him back, as he says, “to my original point: since even heroic genius is human, it is well not to go too far in worshipping it.” The Bismarck headings underscore this selection criterion: Faustian Hero; Founder of a Cult; Historical Disaster; Responsible Realist.
Scholars, especially those who focus on modern German history, have always respected highly J. Alden's two monographs on Germany After Bismarck: The Caprivi Era (Harvard, 1958) and the Year of the Three Kaisers : Bismarck and the German Succession, 1887-88 (University of Illinois, 1987). Both have well stood the test of time, both have well resisted the never- ending updating of source materials (especially by eager and ambitious PhD candidates); both are still often included in bibliographies; both are a sterling model of combining what some readers might consider boring and methodologically dated political history with exemplary original scholarship and brilliance of style; both continue to be highly instructive and a pure pleasure to read.
His first publication he called Germany After Bismarck [and rightly so: certainly after 1890 and arguably after 1848, there never was a Germany Without Bismarck] ; his projected next book was to focus on Bismarck in retirement; but the more he became engaged with the subject (during which time this graduate student was his research assistant) , the more did he convince himself that it needed a preface, and so this preface became the monograph on the Year of the Three Kaisers – of course another Bismarck book. When he returned to the post 1890 project, other considerations intervened, last but not least the paucity of relevant sources not allowing the telling of a sufficiently solid source-founded story to meet his professional standards. [“the sources simply were not there (the Bismarck archive) Suddenly – with Wm. II's accession they stop – nothing. And the key … political sources are also lacking.”]
Unlike the historian Erich Marcks, referred to above, with whom he shares in more than one way style and insight, J. Alden refused, resisted, remained an acutely aware Calvinistic critic (shades of Bamberger – mentioned above as well) – one of those who in their own way contributed elegantly and insistently to the safeguarding of human dignity and freedom from all attempts to impose any form of authoritarian restrictions. J. Alden wrote: “I think it is probably my Protestant upbringing – more Calvinist than Lutheran – that has made me so leery of fanaticism. That plus growing up in the 30s. It is not for nothing that I have Holbein's Erasmus on my office wall.” Symbolic, this expressed attitude and atmosphere was embedded in every aspect of his teaching and mentoring.
As a matter of fact, looking at J. Alden's professional endeavors in their entirety, it turns out to be one long, sustained, polyphonic encounter and increasing fascination with Bismarck [“the Old man grows on you”] This fascination with Bismarck, with Bismarck's ambivalence ultimately concerning religion, historical development, the role assumed/assigned to human individuals therein, predestination, luck… it remained a thread throughout J. Alden study and teaching. Considering the content of his lectures interweaving romantic idealisms and romantic quests in its so many manifestations, including the music of Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Mahler it may well be that J. Alden restricted his academic research to political history as a conscious and self-imposed strategy to contain his, as he himself described it, “own strong Romantic Idealism. I know its dangers first hand.”
His graduate student recalls: HS 410 seminar, February 1962 [Topic: Congress of Vienna, Liberalism, Nationalism and Revolution, Statesmanship in the 1860s, Socialism] The pages of the student papers are filled with corrections, suggested stylistic and substantive improvements, critical evaluative comments – often over 15 per page! A range from “brilliant”, to “you might have consulted with profit”, to “fundamentally flawed” is representative commentary. There were no concessions in matters of quality, but and always with sympathetic support and for improvement.
Or take the delightful episode when his graduate student's fiancé enrolled into a reading course in German history and he asked him to suggest the readings for her.
His graduate student recalls: J. Alden drove hundreds of miles to attend the wedding of his graduate student; he drove hundreds of miles to participate in a seminar chaired by this his (former) graduate student; also shared funeral services. He freely exchanged archival evidences, and dug up bibliographical references (on Angkor no less, for example) Such and so much more exemplified J. Alden's never-ending expressions of concern, commitment , support, reassurance, encouragement, and praise, appreciation , and the joy in the success of his former students.
His graduate student recalls: He considered suicide (by one of his students) an act of irresponsibility not to be condoned or sentimentalized; he shared advice handed down in his family: “Beware of fathers that dress like mothers”; he found that young German Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst(DAAD) applicants which he screened, as tending to lack self- confidence, while American Ford and Fulbright applicants tended to be over-confident; he was not overly impressed with the German Grosse Koalition because he feared for the life of a healthy political opposition.
His advice, when given, based upon astute observation grounded in acute psychological insight, was always thoughtful; J. Alden never did anything thoughtlessly. His suggestions went way beyond the class room office hour dimensions. As a random sample from so many others: to this graduate student he recommended to view the films Zorba The Greek (1964) ; Georgy Girl (1966); La Dolce Vita (1960) ; The 8th Day of the Week (1958) ; and, most impacting: The Pawnbroker (1964)
As to his research assistants: J. Alden avoided the common abuses. He was not less demanding for all that but never lost sight of the fact that assistants were in fact graduate students under pressure to complete their dissertations. And he protected his graduate students and PhD candidates from the adversities of intra-departmental politics and tensions. Knowing that this graduate student would be teaching someday, he ”suggested” becoming his teaching assistant, dismissing any and all objections.
J. Alden did appreciate spontaneous student comments and was obviously touched and pleased by such as the one of a bright and unconventional mid-60s free spirit thanking him for a “cool course”. Indeed, he loved conversation, with most everybody about most anything (including students, colleagues, assignments, work, politics, personal and personnel, departmental and institutional matters and such like) and these were always delightful, instructive, wise; there was never even so much as a hint of contrivance, artificiality, false or forced tone, let alone gossip, negativity.
Ah, and his family dog: during this graduate student's time it was Muffy.
He was not spared deepest grief – the loss of his wife, and his son (about which this graduate student did not then know ).
In intensely personal matters J. Alden always retained a “vornehme Zurueckhaltung”, a dignified reserve and he appreciated and respected its mutual observation.
Reading the obituaries, especially in the Historische Zeitschrift and the American Historical Association Perspectives, testimonials to extraordinary historians are not absent. And indeed, in the recent issue of the Perspectives there is a fine example of James Sheehan's reflective obituary for Hans-Ulrich Wehler (a nephew of a very good friend of the family of this graduate student since the early 1950s) who closed his eyes in July 2014, as did J. Alden Nichols on 28 June. (what month, and what day, what anniversary year for historians of modern Germany!).
Relative to overall attitudes, conduct, - at least in the way this graduate student understood them then - concerning history and matters of history, but also concerning matters of critical-sympathetic form in search for understanding and values J. Alden's impact on all of his students was profound, - certainly on this graduate student – and so was his exceptional , incomparable genteelness of manner and style: frank, open, thoughtful, sharing, with an indestructible and wonderfully optimistic , infectious, approach to, and outlook on, life.
These aspects seemed to touch students more than recourse to developing and postulating brilliant-stark controversies, bolstered by numerous publications and the reputation of an internationally known formidable knight in academic garbs (Taylor, Fischer). It always seemed to this graduate student that those internationally acclaimed historians needed to be studied assiduously and intensively, but then also needed to be ingested and digested, “overcome”; but in addition to that, J. Alden compel led to emulate, to embrace pedagogically and absorb without needing to be afraid of becoming someone other than oneself. No Namierites or Bielefeld schools forged in the image of a J. Alden would have been to his liking.
Countless facts and dates and names to which J. Alden first to introduced his students may well have long since been forgotten or had to re-acquire on the way later; but not forgotten have they (and I do speak for them) the Wertsetzungen”, the careful selection of and nuanced presentation and demonstrated application of distinct values and norms - and while in and by itself not necessarily a scholarly shattering experience, yet as a whole an invaluable guiding into an atmosphere and sustained condition of the model historian, gentleman and mentor – [for those who attended: the atmosphere of Summer 1964 seminar discussions and debates , 4th floor Lincoln Hall, interrupted only by many long hours in the library – reading, thinking, reflecting, and then the urge to communicate as teacher and mentor .]
Eventually, so he wrote, “I have given up research and am enjoying literature and the intellectual stimulation of the NY Review of Books” , having ”lunch with the retirees (a large group [at the U. of Illinois]) once a month.”; continuing as well his stays at his country retreat in Vermont, and the freedom of driving the automobile, at age 88 (and as long as possible thereafter).
The more this graduate student reflects over the years the stronger has become his conviction that he was fortunate indeed to have had such an exemplary mentor and guide. (How many read seriously much of Ranke now? of Droysen, Gardiner, Grote, Mommsen, Bury, Trevelyan, Froude, McMaster, Channing, Meinecke? But the impact of a Meinecke as a Droysen and Sybel student on his students, and of these students on theirs, which is now practically our generation? the impact of Siegmund Neumann and Columbia professors on J. Alden...?.)
In the long run, the quantity of publications and public visibility is not nearly as significant as is the quality of character, impact of personality, and in service of and commitment to teaching, mentoring, guiding. And with regard to these qualities J. Alden surely has his place in that very select group of the best of the best; there is none better.
Well, so how is one to end?
Out there in the flat openness of Illinois surrounded by farms, pig pens, cattle barns, alfalfa and corn fields, it was a good, respectable, Department which J. Alden joined and remained a loyal member; among with others such as: Schroeder and Spence (his sometime office companion), Starr and Geanakoplos, Dawn, Erickson and Lee, Sirich, Graebner and Johannsen. Add to these Phillipson of the German department and Francis Wilson (paradoxically, for those who know) of Political Science – and indeed from Navy Pier (yes! Navy Pier): Stronks (English) Nicholson and Riddle (history).
The Department still IS - and their publications are positioned next to each other on a special shelf of the ISNCE (some uncomfortably so and not quite to their liking, surely, but then, it is the arrangement of THIS graduate student ,for now) and who knows…
Ekkehard-Teja Wilke, U. of Illinois '62, Graduate student, Nichols PhD ‘67
Institute for the Study of Nineteenth Century Europe [ISNCE]
188 Lawton Road
Riverside, Ill., 60546-2357
11 November 2014
The most memorable lecturer I ever experienced in the U of I History Department, J. Alden Nichols was always supportive and invariably kind to me, as well as to others. He gave everyone the impression that above all he enjoyed being a teacher, though his two major publications were meticulously researched and well-written. But what was most amazing was his ability to entertain as he lectured; History 311 and 312 were not only thought-provoking and informative, but they were like individual performances, timed to end with a perfect big finish at the 49th minute out of the 50 minute time periods. And of all of the classes he taught, his four presentations on "Romanticism", in one of which musical excerpts, especially from Wagner, figured so prominently, were perhaps the best individual set of lectures I heard from ANY instructor at UIUC. Like many of my fellow students in the History Department, I looked forward to every session of his courses. His graduate problems course, in which he told graduate students he would rather have them submit their term papers a little late than have them over-stress and do a poor job, showed his humanity and decency. He also was open in his graduate seminar to various unconventional topics --- such as "The Growth of the German Film Industry Prior to WWI", a paper that helped me grow as a film historian. He served on my doctoral committee, and throughout he was encouraging and helpful to me. He will be missed.