EASTHAMPTON - Historian and expert on the rise and fall of the Nazi regime, Klemens Wilhelm von Klemperer died on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, at his home in Easthampton at the age of 96.
He was born in Berlin on Nov. 2, 1916, a son of Herbert and Frieda Kuffner von Klemperer. He graduated from the Französisches Gymnasium Berlin in 1934.
Mr. von Klemperer attended Balliol College Oxford, then moved to the University of Vienna, where he studied history of law. After the Anschluss in March 1938, he acted as one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi student movement in Vienna until mounting political disturbances forced him to flee to the United States in November 1938.
After first arriving in New York, Mr. von Klemperer enrolled at Harvard University under Franklin D. Roosevelt's refugee scholar program. These studies were interrupted from 1942 to 1946 by service in the U.S. Army in Eisenhower's G2 intelligence unit of SHAEF, stationed in London, Versailles and Berlin. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1949, and went on to Smith College, where he taught for 37 years, becoming L. Clark Seelye professor of history in 1979. He was made a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, England, in 1973, of Trinity College, Oxford, in 1980 and of the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin, in 1987. He was made a Five College professor in 1990. Mr. von Klemperer served on the board of the Volkswagen Foundation from 2000 to 2005, and of the Forschungsgemeinschaft 20 Juli from 2000 to 2012. He continued his work as an active scholar well into his 90s, maintaining an office at Smith College, and publishing his last book, a memoir, in 2009.
Mr. von Klemperer wrote numerous books and articles and lectured repeatedly in the U.S. and abroad on topics related to German and Central European history and the nationality problem. His prime concern in recent years was the German resistance to the Nazi dictatorship. He twice delivered the annual lecture in Berlin commemorating those who participated in the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Hitler. In 1998, he delivered the lecture at Westminster Abbey commemorating the installation of a statue of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one of 10 20th-century martyrs. He came to see that his mission as a historian was to show that even in the hell of tyranny there are people who are strong and principled enough to resist.
In 1997, he received the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art in recognition of his contribution to Austrian culture.
In addition to his professional and academic pursuits, Mr. von Klemperer was a lifelong outdoorsman. He began this dimension of his life by participating in the outdoor sports movement that took shape in Germany of the 1920s and '30s, ascending the Matterhorn and skiing with sealskin climbing strips. Later, in the United States, he became a life member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, making yearly hiking trips to the White Mountains, and calling them "my American Alps."
Mr. von Klemperer is survived by his wife of 59 years, Elizabeth Gallaher von Klemperer, professor emeritus at Smith College, his daughter, Catharine vK Utzschneider, assistant professor at Boston College, his son, James von Klemperer, principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects in New York, and four grandchildren: Elizabeth M. von Klemperer, Caroline von Klemperer, William Utzschneider and Anne Utzschneider.
A memorial service will be arranged at Smith College in the coming months.
Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette on Dec. 26, 2012