In Memoriam: Founding Center Advisory Board Member, Prof. Eric Weitz

It is with great sadness that I report the death on July 1, 2021 of founding Center Advisory Board member, Eric Weitz. An outstanding scholar and committed educator, Eric brought wisdom and insight to matters large and small.  He was our colleague, and he was our friend. We miss him.

Eric’s (former) doctoral student, Prof. Sarah K. Danielsson, honored her mentor with the following obituary, published in the Journal of Genocide Research.

Debórah Dwork

Eric D. Weitz

On 1 July 2021, Eric Weitz passed away after a battle with cancer. He was 68 years old. The fields of genocide studies and human rights have lost one of its most influential thinkers and prolific authors.

Eric grew up in the Bayside section of Queens, New York. He studied history at SUNY Binghamton, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1974. He received his MA (1976) and his PhD in history at Boston University in 1983 under the supervision of his subsequent longtime friend and colleague, Norman Naimark. During his graduate studies, he specialized in German and Soviet history, and spent a year at Ruhr-Universität, Bochum, studying with Hans Mommsen. In 1985, he commenced an assistant professorship at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, where he stayed until 1999 when he was hired by the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Two years later, he became the Asham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair in the College of Liberal Arts, and in 2007, he was awarded the prestigious Distinguished McKnight University Professorship of the University of Minnesota.

In 2012, he returned “home”: to the City College of New York. He often spoke of his childhood in Queens, the most diverse county in the United States, and had long held a desire to promote public education in New York City. He regarded the City University of New York (CUNY) as one of the most important public universities in the country. Its unmatched record of educating the city’s minority and immigrant communities was close to his heart.

He also held visiting professorships and research scholarships at Princeton and NYU. Throughout his career, he brought numerous grants to the institutions where he was employed. He also had a number of individual grants, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harry Frank Guggenheim, and the German Academic Exchange (DAAD), to name a few.

Eric started his career in the study of communism. His dissertation, “Conflict in the Ruhr: Workers and Socialist Politics in Essen, 1910-1925,” began his research on Socialism and Communism in Germany. His first, critically acclaimed, book was Creating German Communism, 1890-1990: From Popular Protest to Socialist State published in 1997, a work that has aided every scholar of German communism and leftist politics in Germany even since. It is also one of the starting points for his work on European political history and its social impact. This work culminated in his later book on Weimar Germany (Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, 2007), which was a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice in 2007, among other awards, and has been translated into four languages. In this book, he shows his mastery of European history and his deep interest in German political history. This book stands out, not just as one of the most definitive works to date on the subject, but for its readability and the vivid images it paints. It will be the standard textbook on the Weimar era for years to come.

His work in genocide studies started with an examination of Soviet actions in an article entitled “Racial Politics Without the Concept of Race: Reevaluating Soviet Ethnic and National Purges,” in the journal Slavic Review (2002). Weitz argued that racial concepts and racist practices were not always named as such, but that racial thinking nevertheless was at the heart of genocidal politics and actions. He expanded on this important argument in his book A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation, from 2003. The book is an important contribution to the role of identity politics in the history of genocide. In it, he sought to explain how national and racial concepts are modern forms defining human difference, that they are neither self-evident nor primordial, and that they have indeed been used as justification and reasons for genocide and mass violence. In what would dominate much of his work from that point forward, Eric argued national and racial concepts could not be seen as merely harmless forms of identification, but are often accompanied by exclusion, oppression, and yes, genocide.

His work on genocide had always grappled with the root causes of mass violence and extermination, and it led him to look at the history of human rights. In two articles published in the American Historical Review in 2008 and 2015, respectively, Eric Weitz gave a taste of where his research was heading. In the articles, “From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions,” and “Self-Determination: How a German Enlightenment Idea Became the Slogan of National Liberation and a Human Right,” Eric covered parts of the intellectual and political history of the modern concept of rights and their problematic entanglements, as he put it.

Eric Weitz’s last book, his crowning achievement and an invaluable contribution to the field of Human Rights studies, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation States, was published in 2019 with Princeton University Press. It was also the subject of a book forum of the March 2021 issue of this journal. The book covers the history of rights and asks, “Who has access to rights? What do we mean by human rights? And how do we obtain rights?” It argues that the expansion and questioning of rights have caused conflict and mass violence, and often denial of rights, in particular, in its uneasy relationship to the rise of nation-states. In his study of human rights, Eric exposed the problematic reality of rights being tied to our national belonging and questioned who in the national contexts have the right to have rights. It is a sobering and important question that culminates in a wide critique of our current rights regimes and the national and international frameworks in which they operate. It is a work that will engender debate and further human rights research.

Outside of academia, Eric wrote opinion pieces, covering public debates and policy around ongoing genocides, the historical acknowledgement of genocides such as the Armenian, and the work of the International Criminal Court in bringing genocide perpetrators to justice. He also joined the chorus of academics who, in 2016, raised the alarm about the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and the dangerous effects his presidency would have on the country.

Since 2006, he was also the series editor for “Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity” at Princeton University Press, helping guide numerous influential works to fruition. Eric was also a university leader, serving as Dean of the Humanities and Arts at City College. While Dean, he was promoted to Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A person of immense integrity, he resigned from the deanship in 2016 because he had been asked to slash the humanities budget. He argued that he could not in good conscience participate in the decimation of the humanities faculty and the consequent silencing of minority and immigrant voices at City College.

He could now plough his energies into purely academic work. He helped organize the City College Human Rights seminar, which include participation from faculty who work in the field from all NYC colleges and Universities. Top scholars in the field of Human Rights are invited to give papers that are then discussed in the seminar. This seminar has and will continue to make important contributions to the scholarship in this field. As in his courses, Eric was particularly interested in reading works that challenged him and with which he disagreed. Those who attended these seminars can attest to the vigorous discussion he engendered and the crucial contributions he voiced. Similarly, in his courses, he often assigned readings that he would later critique in depth. He thrived on a good academic discussion. And it was in this process that he taught historical method. Not only did he insist that a good historian must be widely read, but that they must always engage ideas and texts with which they differ. He was also uncommonly comfortable with criticism of his own ideas. He often emphasized that a historian must develop a thick skin, and he often saw criticism as an occasion to improve his work.

Eric Weitz was an exceptionally generous friend, mentor, advisor, and colleague. The word that sums up his career is “ethical”: his work and scholarship was deeply ethical, and his subject matter was the ethical treatment of others. His work reveals a profound concern for human rights and respect for the dignity of others. He never succumbed to the hierarchical thinking of academia and made conscious efforts to treat graduate students, junior, and senior faculty equally. His life and career have already had a deep impact on the historical field and every person he encountered. That impact will continue through his published work through generations.

Outside of academia, he was a man who enjoyed lively conversation and fine wine and his hidden talent of baking – he had spent time working at a bakery while earning his degree. Always a convivial social presence, he and his partner and publisher Birgitta van Rheinberg at Princeton University Press were always gracious hosts.

Eric Weitz was my PhD advisor, and I was the first whom he guided from beginning to end through my PhD career at the University of Minnesota. I remember the experience as if it was yesterday, the spring day in 2000, when he called me to introduce himself and recruit me for the doctoral programme at the University of Minnesota. I had just finished his book on German Communism in my senior German history course. He showed a genuine interest in my research pursuits and made clear he wanted to help guide me through the graduate studies. He relayed his knowledge of City College, where I gained my undergraduate degree, and we talked about his background in New York City. He quickly persuaded me to go to the University of Minnesota. From the beginning, he was demanding but extremely supportive. I have come to fully understand the level of his support and the level of his guidance after many years of hearing of other colleagues’ graduate studies experiences. Throughout his career, he only took on the role as a primary PhD advisor to a few students and, when he did, he poured everything into us. I look back at those years with immense gratitude and appreciation. Between the demanding reading lists, the lively classes, and our weekly discussions, a genuine friendship developed. The year after I finished, he was very helpful on the job market, and he understood particularly well my decision to accept a job at CUNY. He would himself make the same choice a few years later.

One fact that is especially hard to quantify, but that I believe every female reader will particularly understand, is that he never gendered me or saw me as anything other than his intellectual equal. I took it for granted in those early years, but I was reminded in the rise of the MeToo movement how rare my experience was. His support was unwavering and invaluable in an academic world that can still be quite hostile to women. If we did not meet in a seminar or a conference, we would always meet up at least once a semester to discuss both of our research and often discover that there was a great deal of overlap; we were intellectually kindred spirits. We would debate concepts and historical interpretations, but also campus politics, politics in general, and the goings-on in our lives. In this, give-and-take, there was gossip, a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour, and always much of laughter. He is sorely missed by those of us with the privilege to have known him. Though cruelly cut short, his was a life well-lived in every sense.

Sarah K. Danielsson
Professor of History, Queensborough College
Executive Director of CUNY Academy, Graduate Center-CUNY

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