Ernst Wangermann (1925-2021): A personal memoir

Franz A.J. Szabo, Wirth Institute Founding Director - 14 January 2022


Ernst Wangermann (1925-2021)


The whole Austrian and Habsburg historical community was saddened to learn of the death of one of its most distinguished members, Professor Ernst Wangermann, who passed away at his home in Salzburg on November 26, 2021 at the age of 96.  I was fortunate to count Ernst among my dear friends, and I was very happy during my tenure as Director of the Wirth Institute to bring him to the University of Alberta on a number of occasions. I first met Ernst in the reading room of the Austrian State Archives at the very beginning of my academic career in the summer of 1977, by which time his work had already had a profound impact on me.  As an undergraduate my primary interest had been in 19th century international history, but when I arrived at the University of Alberta as an M.A. student in the fall of 1968 and began to search for a thesis topic, I ran across Ernst’s From Joseph II to the Jacobin Trials: Government Policy and Public Opinion in the Habsburg Dominions in the Period of the French Revolution (Oxford, 1959). I read the book in a single day and came away fired up with the idea of working on imperial Habsburg policy towards the “fourth estate” (in my case, specifically the peasantry) under Emperors Joseph II (1780-1790) and Leopold II (1790-1792). This became the topic of my M.A. thesis and set my subsequent path in graduate school irrevocably to Early Modern Habsburg history.  By the time I completed my Ph.D. in 1976 a second book by Ernst, The Austrian Achievement, 1700-1800 (London, 1973) proved equally inspiring. The work, intended for an undergraduate audience, was concise and accessible but also deeply scholarly and filled with profound analytical insights.  I was especially taken by its successful integration of art and music history (two of my own special interests) into the broader social and political narrative. It was thus with understandable excitement that I actually met Ernst that summer and had the opportunity to have numerous chats with him at various Vienna coffee houses and restaurants during our breaks from archival research.

When I met Ernst he was just putting the finishing touches on his first book in German, Aufklärung und Staatsbürgerliche Erziehung:  Gottfried van Swieten als Reformator des österreichischen Unterrichtswesens 1781-1791 (Vienna1978), which analyzed van Swieten’s role as the reform-minded minister of education under Joseph II.  As I was then working on my own book on the equally reform-minded Habsburg State Chancellor, Wenzel Anton Kaunitz, Ernst and I soon found common intellectual interests.  It was Ernst who that summer pointed me to the diplomatic reports van Swieten wrote to Kaunitz during his brief tenure as Austrian ambassador to Berlin, for, in addition to the usual diplomatic reports, van Swieten also acted as Kaunitz’s literary agent, securing many forbidden works for him – including erotica – while in Berlin. This initial contact in 1977 blossomed into a more than 40-year friendship when next we met in the fall of 1980 during a series of conferences in Vienna commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Empress Maria Theresia and the accession of her son, Joseph II.


Ernst at the Maria Theresia conference in Vienna, October 1980


As a graduate student I thought of Ernst as one of the leading members of the distinguished group of émigrés who were the pillars of Habsburg studies in the English-speaking world in the post World War II generation.  But as I came to know him better, I came to realize he had become so almost by default.  Born in Vienna in 1925, he was forced to flee to Britain with his mother and sister in February 1939 (his father had recently died and there were Jewish ancestors on his mother’s side).  However, the experience did not sour his Austrian patriotism or his confidence that fascism would be defeated.  Thus when he entered Balliol College Oxford in 1946, studying among others under the distinguished Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, he deliberately chose an Austrian topic for his dissertation with the aim of returning to Austria to launch an academic career there. Contrary to expectation, From Joseph II to the Jacobin Trials did not pave the road for a return to Austria. While Ernst had gravitated to the left, the political climate in the Austrian academic community was decidedly conservative and inhospitable for him.  He thus remained in Britain, where after a short stint as a secondary schoolteacher, he secured a position at Leeds University in 1962, where he met his future wife, María Josefa.  Establishing Austrian studies there and building up the university’s library in the field soon made him one of the most important historians of the Habsburg Monarchy in the English-speaking world. He might have remained at Leeds were it not for his profound disillusionment with the education policies of Margaret Thatcher, his love of Austria and the coincidental death of the Salzburg historian Hans Wagner in 1984, whose chair he sought and received.

As a result of Ernst’s re-migration to Austria we now had many opportunities to meet during my own frequent research trips during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  I was especially pleased that Ernst accepted the invitation to participate in a conference that my colleague Grete Klingenstein and I organized in Brno and Austerlitz in conjunction with our Czech colleague, Jiří Kroupa, to mark the bicentenary of the death of State Chancellor Kaunitz in 1994.


Ernst at the Kaunitz conference in Slavkov u Brna (Austerlitz), June 1994. 
From left to right: R.J.W. Evans, Éva H. Balázs, Ernst, me, H.M. Scott.


He joined a very distinguished group of Habsburgists with a moving paper on Kaunitz’s opposition to war with France in 1792. I counted it as a special honour to be invited to deliver the Laudatio and to contribute to a Festschrift in his honour on the occasion of his retirement in 1995, but above all by his suggestion I should apply to succeed him in Salzburg. At Ernst’s retirement ceremony, University of Salzburg Rektor Edgar Moscher commented in his opening remarks that historians never actually retire, but merely move to the next step in their lives where “what they previously had to do as a duty, they now do out of simple enjoyment.” And certainly Ernst remained an active scholar beyond his official retirement, contributing more than a dozen important articles to scholarship, as well as his last major work, the brilliant Die Waffen der Publizität:  Zum Funktionswandel der politischen Literatur unter Joseph II (Vienna, 2004). The study was the culmination of his ongoing argument about the maturation of public opinion during the Austrian Enlightenment and the crowning achievement of his scholarship.

Ernst made his first trip to Canada in January 1996 when he came to Ottawa, where I was then teaching at Carleton University, to participate in a conference on the history of Austrian music.  This was my first opportunity to reciprocate his many kind invitations to his home in Salzburg, where fine dining thanks to the culinary talents of María Josefa, was always de rigueur.  Here, one British tradition invariably lingered: the aperitif sherry.


Reciprocal visits:  Left, Ernst at our home in Ottawa, January 1996.
Right, visiting Ernst in Salzburg, June 1996.


In September 1998 I relocated to Edmonton to take up the position of Director of what was initially called the Canadian Center for Austrian and Central European Studies (subsequently re-named Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies in honour of our principal donor) at the University of Alberta.  This gave me the welcome opportunity to bring Ernst to Canada again on several occasions: twice to participate in conferences in 2006 and 2011 and once as part of our distinguished visiting speakers programme in 2010. 


Ernst and María during their first visit to Edmonton, September 2006


For the conference  “Religion and Authority in Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment” in September 2006 I persuaded Ernst and María to extend their stay in Canada so that I could take them for an outing to the Canadian Rockies. 



Ernst and María hiking in the Canadian Rockies with my wife, Kateryna, and 
my colleague, John-Paul Himka, September 2006


I knew that Ernst was an avid hiker, and that he counted his hikes in the Austrian Alps among his most pleasant experiences. This undoubtedly kept him fit well into his final years, but it was still astonishing to see with what vigour he mastered an extremely challenging hike in the Canadian Rockies at the age of 81.  

In between these visits to Edmonton, of course, I had the pleasure of visiting Ernst in Salzburg whenever I was in Austria, which now, thanks to my duties as Institute Director, was annually in the years leading up to my own retirement from that post in 2011.  



Reciprocal visits 2:  Left, visiting Ernst in Salzburg, June 2009.
Right, Ernst at our home in Edmonton, March 2010


As a final act before that retirement I organized a conference on “New Perspectives on the Austrian Enlightenment” at the University of Alberta, for which I persuaded Ernst, now 86, to come to Canada one more time to deliver the keynote address. This was certainly the highlight of the conference, and, as has been repeatedly reported to me, remembered especially fondly by the members of the younger generation of Habsburg scholars in attendance.


Ernst (front row, center) as keynote speaker at the Wirth Institute’s “New Perspectives on the Austrian Enlightenment” conference, September 2011.


Ernst delivering the keynote address


While long-distance travel became increasingly burdensome for him in the last decade of his life, Ernst continued to contribute actively to conferences in Europe.  One of my special fond memories was our joint participation (along with, in my view, the other great historian of the 18th century in Austria, Grete Klingenstein of the University of Graz), at an Enlightenment conference held at the University of Tübingen in the summer of 2014.


Ernst with Grete Klingenstein and me at the “Bedrohliche Aufklärung?” conference, 
University of Tübingen, June 2014


Ernst was an engaging conversationalist, whom one could not help but admire both as a person and as a scholar.  As his students, friends and colleagues have all also repeatedly attested, I too came to treasure Ernst’s kindness, warmth, humanity, and deep commitment to the noblest ideals of the Enlightenment.  As a historian, his works have a very special power of persuasion, and I think that points to several special stylistic and content characteristics of his oeuvre as a whole. This power of persuasion lies primarily in the fact that he wrote very close to the sources and evaluated those sources with scrupulous honesty and exceptional sensitivity.  He also wrote, in both English and German, in an enviable direct and simple style, and with concise, but always informative insights.  These were characteristics I admired and always sought to emulate (though brevity was not always my strong suit).


The engaging scholar:  Ernst in typical conference mode


Ernst always acknowledged the influence Christopher Hill had had  in steering him in a Marxist direction and would argue that some of these scholarly traits are inherent in dialectical materialism.  Though my own intellectual influences had come rather from Libertarian-leaning quarters, Ernst and I seldom found ourselves in disagreement in our analyses of the Habsburg Enlightenment.  I liked to joke that he was like Roman Rozdolsky, the Ukrainian Marxist historian, and I was like Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian School economist. Both Rozdolsky and Mises had written books on peasant emancipation under Joseph II, and had effectively come to the same conclusions.  

Of course, we shared so much more.  Above all we had a common passion for the music of the Austrian Enlightenment. He not only especially loved the music of the period, but he saw it as one of the clearest expressions of the Austrian variant of the Enlightenment and wrote a number of illuminating articles on Gluck, Mozart and Haydn.  Ernst had a deep love and profound understanding of the operas of Mozart, but again like me, had become increasingly exasperated at some of the travesties that Regietheater foisted on those works. 


Ernst listening to Mozart and admiring my compact disc collection.


I can also say that, like me, he had an unblinkered view of Austrian politics and society but a deep love of the country and its culture nonetheless.  We would both often wax lyrical about the magical allure of the Austrian countryside, and I know he was particularly fond of Ottokar von Hornek’s “Paean to Austria” from Franz Grillparzer’s play, König Ottokars Glück und Ende (a sort of Austrian version of John of Gaunt’s “This sceptred isle” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II).  And then, of course, there was Austrian cuisine. Ernst and María were always gracious hosts and, as I mentioned above, María’s culinary skills were unsurpassed: always with a touch of her native Spain but well steeped in the Austrian side as well.  Ernst also delighted in treating me to some of the finest dining spots in Salzburg.  It is fitting that one of Ernst and María’s gifts to us was a beautiful cake serving plate that remains a treasured memorabilia in our family reserved exclusively for serving Dobostorte, which my now adult children continue to request on a regular basis. So, the “Wangermann plate” comes out a lot.


Dining out in Salzburg in 2013 and 2017


En famille Ernst and I communicated in English, as both our wives did not have it easy with German.  At academic events in Austria or Germany or in company with Austrian colleagues we tended to communicate in German.  When alone together it was always a curious mixture, sliding back and forth between the languages, which reflected well our common experience between two worlds.

In my Laudatio on the occasion of his 70th birthday I drew attention to a particularly poignant passage from his Austrian Achievement book in which he quoted Tamino’s plaintive question in the finale of the first act of Mozart’s Magic Flute:

O ew’ge Nacht! wann wirst du schwinden?
Wann wird das Licht mein Auge finden?
(O unending night, when will you vanish?
When will my eyes see the light?)


At the time I wrote, paraphrasing the chorus response to Tamino, that whenever I read Ernst’s work the answer was always “Jetzt, Jüngling, jetzt…” (Now, youth, now…).  Now, when I think of Ernst’s unflagging support and encouragement of my scholarship over the years, I recall with deep gratitude how his friendship and his faith in me provided the inspiration to see me through the gloomier moments of my early career.  It was a true privilege to have known him, and he will always remain alive in my memory.

The Covid pandemic prevented my planned visits to Austria both in 2020 and in 2021, so, sadly, the last time I had an opportunity to meet with Ernst was in November 2019. Though he was beginning to show some signs of his age by that time, he was as engaging as ever.  I am grateful to his family for informing me of his passing and for allowing me to attend, virtually at least, his funeral. I have written a more formally academic obituary, which will appear in the 2022 issue (Vol. 53) of Austrian History Yearbook. May his soul rest in peace.


My last visit with Ernst at his home in Salzburg, November 2019