Simon Dubnow Lecture

Historical Experience and the Culture of Knowledge: Karl W. Deutsch, from Prague to the United States

5th Simon Dubnow Lecture

On 18 November 2004, the political acientist Andrei S. Markovits delivered the fifth Simon Dubnow Lecture entitled »Geschichtserfahrung und Wissenskultur: Karl W. Deutsch – von Prag nach Amerika« (Historical Experience and the Culture of Knowledge: Karl W. Deutsch, from Prague to the United States).

Andrei S. Markovits holds the Karl W. Deutsch chair in Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is one of the leading American political scientists with many-sided research interests, especially in German and Austrian contemporary history.

Karl W. Deutsch and Markovits were close friends over many years, a bond that developed after Markovits studied with him in the 1960s. The lecture thus drew on a deep knowledge both of the work and the person of the famous scholar. Markovots placed special emphasis on the interdisciplinary approach of his friend and mentor in the study of politics. It became clear that Deutsch had had an impact in diverse areas of inquiry dealing with language, rivalry, inclusion and exclusion, territoriality and collective identity, and was also known and recognized as a scholar in peace research.

Karl Wolfgang Deutsch (1912–1992) was born in Prague in 1912 to Jewish parents. He graduated from high school there and later earned his first academic degree in 1934 at the German University, Prague. Continuing his studies proved impossible as he became active in resisting the ever more intense dominance of the National Socialists from the mid-1930s on, both among students and faculty at the university. Deutsch left Prague and emigrated to England, where he completed training as an optician. Then he returned to Prague and received a doctorate in law at the Czech University of Prague in 1938. A stay in the United States for further study was subsequently extended due to political developments in Central Europe, and the U.S. became the new home of Karl Deutsch and his wife Ruth. Over the years he taught at MIT, Yale and Harvard. He also had repeated guest professorships in Europe, including the Federal Republic of Germany. Thus, he served beginning in 1976 as director of the International Institute for Comparative Social Rreseach at the Wissenschaftszentrum in West Berlin.

Deutsch viewed himself very much as a »secular universalist,« whose Jewish background was at no time of much importance to him. Only in one publication did he deal with Judaism, an article in April 1945 in the Journal of the History of Ideas, entitled »Anti-Semitic Ideas in the Middle Ages: International Civilizations in Expansion and Conflict.« Here he developed the thesis that over the course of history the Jews, on the basis of their education and literacy, led lives that differed possitively from their Christian neighbors, and this despite discrimination and repeated pogroms.

Even if Deutsch did not deal with Jewish history and culture as a declared reseach topic, this  essay was significant for his broader agenda of inquiry. Empirical approaches and figures became an integral part of every argument he advanced, and the grounded basis of his theories. Deutsch’s admiration for education and achievement and his respect for enlightened learning and teaching, were a key shaping factor for his reseach.

That was especially evident in the notion of social mobilization, one of the most important concepts in his epistemology and methodology, which has been accepted as part of basic discourse in international political science. In his view, the indicators for social mobilization were social contact, collective communication, quantity and quality of the knowledge of writing and numbers, urbanity and structure of the vocations. But most important and decisive for his work was the constant application of his theories on the basis of societal comparisons.

Deutsch revolutionized his discipline by integrating cybernetics into the methodological tool box of the social sciences and political science. His book The Nerves of Government (1963) demonstrates,the application of cybernetic concepts in order to make possible a more precise analysis of elementary political mechanisms such as power, authority, leadership, conflict and collapse. In this way, every detail of political events and their consequence bcame theoretically measurable and thus graspable in their concreteness.

Deutsch’s interdisciplinary approach was manifest in particular in applying ideas and terms from anthropology, sociology, economics, statistics,  math,  and even biology and physics. Here was a striking manifestation of his interdisciplinary perspective, which aimed at overcoming the traditional boundaries between various disciplines in the name of enhanced and deepened knowledge.


Carsten Schapkow

18th November 2004
Old Exchange in Leipzig

The Simon Dubnow Lecture is supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation