Hermann Wellenreuther (1941 - 2021)

May 14, 2021

Hermann Wellenreuther who died in Göttingen, Germany, on April 3, 2021, was one of the most visible and influential historians of early American history.

Born in 1941 in Freiburg, he studied in Heidelberg and Cologne and spent his prominent career between 1983 and 2006 as Professor of Medieval and Modern History at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Praised as “Germany’s leading Americanist” (Don Yoder) and “Germany’s most important historian of the early United States” (William Pencak), Wellenreuther distinguished himself as the most renowned German proponent of the concept of the Atlantic World that reaches beyond the traditional America-centric view by illuminating early American history in its dynamic interaction with continental Europe and Great Britain.

Wellenreuther succeeded in giving this concept a life on its own in his masterly four-volume history of North America until 1796, completed in 2016 (Niedergang und Aufstieg, Ausbildung und Neubildung, Von Chaos und Krieg zu Ordnung und Frieden, Von der Konföderation zur Amerikanischen Nation). With his great gift of combining an almost uncanny talent for discovering new archival sources with the big picture, he has provided this history with an impressively comprehensive perspective which allows a new understanding of the transatlantic interactions. Wellenreuther’s placement of American history in a broader perspective is on full display as he illuminates not only these interactions but also the revolution against the British colonial rule and the state-making of the Americans from an eye-opening position.

Published in German, Wellenreuther’s magnum opus might still be less well known in the United States than his earlier output, which was written mostly in English. His work on America’s pioneer German-speaking population in Pennsylvania has been pathbreaking: directing attention to the Quakers in his dissertation, presenting many new archival finds about the German-British-American interactions at the Tricentennial Conference in 1983, and providing in Citizens in a Strange Land (2013) an unusually extensive account of the early print culture as a reflection of the material conditions of German settlers in Pennsylvania through a meticulous textual analysis of sixteen hundred broadsides.

According to the German tradition of embarking on a totally different topic for the Habilitation, Wellerreuther turned to a much-neglected topic of eighteenth-century British history, the estate-level economic and social relationships which confirmed the notion that most history occurs on the local and regional level. This engagement with British history helped him expand his exploration of the Atlantic World, especially in the analysis of American politics vis-à-vis the British colonial regime, with emphasis on the economic factors. Gregg Roeber, the distinguished religious historian at Penn State, has spoken of his friend’s somewhat “opaque” relationship to religion, pointing to his neutralizing term “multi-confessionalism” when integrating the hefty confessional confrontations in early America in the body of his work.

Yet the attention to religion as a social force always constituted a crucial part of Wellenreuther’s scholarship, most productively, perhaps, in his collaboration with Hartmut Lehmann, the Professor of early modern history at Kiel, in the area of Pietism and beyond. During the founding phase of the German Historical Institute in Washington in 1987 under Lehmann’s directorship, Wellenreuther’s pursuit of the Atlantic World in earlier centuries contributed to new interest among American colleagues who tended to assume a twentieth-century orientation as the Institute’s first order of the day. Lehmann didn’t neglect this dimension in the work of the Institute yet enabled it to build itself on a broader foundation.

With Lehmann as the director of the Max-Planck-Institute for History at Göttingen after his stint at Washington, Wellenreuther engaged in massive planning for collaborative projects with American institutions in transatlantic history between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. As a spokesperson for the largest private German-American collection that reaches back to the 1700s and was just restored at the German Society of Pennsylvania, I found Wellenreuther’s and Lehmann’s commitment to enlarging, even institutionalizing this collaboration most impressive. Thanks to Wellenreuther’s twenty-year guidance of the academic advisory board, the Krefeld German-American symposia with fifteen Germen and fifteen American scholars became an innovative and illustrious paradigm of transatlantic historiography. In 2003 he was honored for his extraordinary accomplishments as an historian of the Atlantic World with the award of the Schurman Prize in American History and Culture at the University of Heidelberg.

Wellenreuther’s well-recognized presence both in the profession and as a teacher in the university was characterized by a great talent of stirring enthusiasm for the scope, potential, and intricacies of studies in early American history. With his engaging style, at times overbearing in its meticulousness, he guided a group of excellent students of whom several achieved wide recognition in the field. In his own apprenticeship at the University of Cologne he had learned much from Erich Angermann, the eminent Americanist who honed his sense of meticulous archival research as the basis for larger projects and pushed him to approach American history from a European point of view. After two years in the United States with a Harkness Fellowship that brought him to Yale and Tulane, he worked as an assistant professor at Cologne under Angermann, wrote his Habilitation about British history, and in 1983 received the chair in History in Göttingen.

In his interview with William Pencak, the renowned Penn State professor of early American history, about his life and career in 2004, Wellenreuther expressed his great appreciation of the fact that he was blessed with the presence of two women scholars in his life, “my late wife, Marie-Louise Frings, a perfectionist and marvelous historian,” who could be a fierce but extremely helpful critic, ”who would force me to think not only in cultural terms but in precise factual terms. And now Claudia carries on that tradition, differently but no less demanding and challenging. I feel truly blessed,” referring to Claudia Schnurmann, the Professor for modern North American, Caribbean and Atlantic History at the Universität Hamburg, whom he later married and who edited, together with Hartmut Lehmann, an inspiring Festschrift for his retirement in 2006.

In the introduction to that Festschrift, entitled Atlantic Understandings, the editors pay tribute to the Professor Emeritus not just for his professional achievements but also for his openness to personal contacts and dialogue with the words: “For the countless stimulating conversations, for constructive discussions over tea or coffee, for wisdom imparted on long walks, we all are profoundly grateful. Many of us would not have arrived where we can feel we belong without him.”

Frank Trommler
University of Pennsylvania