Richard H Tilly: An Obituary and an Appreciation

March 17, 2023

Richard Tilly, our 2009 Helmut Schmidt Prize honoree, sadly passed away on February 18, 2023. Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, one of Tilly's first doctoral students and himself the 2015 Helmut Schmidt Prize winner, remembers Tilly's life and career.

His numerous students taking examinations for their diplomas and working toward doctorates or habilitations were among the lucky ones, encountering as they did a university lecturer freshly appointed from the US at the University of Münster at the beginning of the winter semester 1966/67. He embodied youth, state-of-the-art methods and insights into economic history, as well as academic freedom and fairness in the old-fashioned university of the pre-1968 era.

Walter G. Hoffmann had pushed for and succeeded in re-establishing an amply funded chair and Institute for Economic and Social History in what was then the Faculty of Law and Political Science. It was the successful courses of Wolfram Fischer, who had done his habilitation there and was very familiar with the latest developments in American research in economic history, the New Economic History, due to his research stays in the US, that had prompted Hoffmann to do so. Fischer, however, had accepted his first appointment to a chair at Free University of Berlin. Although the new department in Münster offered him the new professorship, Fischer turned it down and remained in Berlin.

It was then Fischer who convinced Walter G. Hoffmann and the faculty in Münster that appointing the young Richard Tilly would provide them with a university lecturer at the cutting edge of economic and social history research. Tilly had given a talk there in the summer of 1966 during a research visit to Germany. Right when Tilly took on his position in Münster, I had earned my economics degree with an elective in economic history. I was drawn to the idea of becoming a research assistant and doctoral student of a 33-year-old American only nine years older than I was.

On February 18, 2023, Richard Tilly passed away at the age of 90. This was completely unexpected by family, students, and friends. He had German roots: His grandfather, Ferdinand Tilly, had emigrated to the United States from a village in Farther Pomerania in the early 1880s. When I asked him if he could trace his family tree back to the Count of Tilly, the principal commander of the Catholic League in the Thirty Years' War, he replied that he had tried but had only gotten as far as an entry in church records indicating that his father was an unknown soldier.

He himself was born in Chicago on October 17, 1932, and eventually had three brothers and a sister. In 1951, he began his studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, graduating in 1955 with a Bachelor of Arts (BA), having majored in history. He then did his military service in the US Army from 1955 to 1957, mostly in Würzburg. There he met his future wife, now his widow Elisabeth Tilly. As she told me long ago, she worked as a librarian for the US forces. He had caught her eye, she said, because he had been one of the library's most avid users. She thought he was an attractive man because he seemed to be less interested in military subjects than in other ones. I never asked whether his great interest in borrowing books was also promoted by her attractiveness.

In 1957, Richard Tilly returned to the US, initially working as a clerk for the Prudential Insurance Company in Chicago. From 1958 to 1961, he attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A scholarship enabled him to spend an extended period in Cologne from 1961 to 1963 researching his dissertation topic.

Before that, he had married Elisabeth in 1960 in Elmhurst near Chicago, and she returned to Germany with him. The family expanded to include four children. In 1964, Tilly graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a PhD in economics. His doctoral advisor was Rondo Cameron, whom he remained friends with throughout his life. By 1963, Tilly had taken a position as an assistant professor at the prestigious University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1966, he transferred to the elite Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Tilly's dissertation “Financial Institutions and Industrialization in the Rhineland (1915–70)”was awarded the Edwin Francis Gay Memorial Prize in Economic History as the best unpublished economic history study from the previous two years. It was published in 1966 as the first of numerous books he would write. From then on, he continued to research the mobilization of capital for economic development, among many other topics. These roots also gave rise to his interest in business history and in the causes of economic sectors developing in different ways. He also studied what fueled various waves of economic development, the business cycle, and especially the interplay of population growth and migration, as well as investments in residential construction.

In the field of social history, he made important contributions to historical research on social protest. With his brother and sister-in-law, Charles and Louise Tilly, he published a book with Harvard UP in 1975, The Rebellious Century 1830–1930,comparing the protest behavior of the lower classes in France, Italy, and Germany. I remember the great interest Richard Tilly showed in watching the students rebel in the streets of Münster from the window of our institute or outside in 1969. Probably because of Münster’s friendly restaurant and bar culture, the movement was late in arriving there. Tilly was by then already busy empirically depicting social protest events in nineteenth-century Germany, primarily with the help of reports from the Augsburger Allgemeine.

In 1990, Tilly authored his first of many widely used textbooks: From Zollverein to Industrial State: Die wirtschaftlich-soziale Entwicklung Deutschland 1834 bis 1914 (1990). Another, Geschichte der Wirtschaftspolitik: Vom Merkantilismus zur sozialen Martkwirtschaft followed in 1993. Even after his retirement in 1997, he continued publishing. Using the extensive research knowledge he had accumulated during his full-time career, he produced major survey works such as Money and Credit in Economic History (2003) and, most recently, together with his student Michael Kopsidis, From Old Regime to Industrial State: A History of German Industrialization from the Eighteenth Century to World War I (Chicago UP, 2020).

I remember Tilly's inaugural lecture in Münster, "Los von England: Probleme des Nationalismus in der deutschen Wirtschaftsgeschichte" [Away from England: Problems of Nationalism in German Economic History]. A formidable dean – I think it was Helmut Schelsky – and other faculty members paid the honor of appearing in their academic regalia to this young, slim, and athletic newcomer in 1967. It would hardly be possible to picture a greater contrast between outdated tradition and an untroubled launch into new perspectives. What I remember was that the German “Los von England” movement in the early nineteenth century had also been imported from the United States, where the first US Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, had unleashed a similar movement with protectionist tariffs to protect infant industries inthe 1890s. Friedrich List, who lived in exile in the US from 1825 to 1833, based his ideas about educational tariffs and his advocacy for the founding of the Zollverein [tariff union] and for railroad construction in Germany on his observations and experiences there.

At the beginning of his tenure in Münster, Tilly had worked on a survey of the subject he now also taught in Germany. It was published in 1969 in the Journal of Economic History under the title "Soll und Haben: Recent German Economic History and the Problem of Economic Development." Tilly's conclusion was that, despite the emergence of the Historical School of National Economics, with its original interest in the study of developmental laws and processes, research in economic history in Germany had degenerated since the 1870s into largely theory-free description of institutions, collection of data, and an antiquarian museum. It was like performing Shakespeare's Hamlet without the prince. This was a thunderclap and a wake-up call that won Tilly not only friends among his German colleagues.

Nevertheless, he managed to found his own school in Germany based on the methodological approaches of the New Economic Historythat had been developing in the US since the late 1950s. The aim was to make the tools of economic theory and econometrics usable for research in economic history, which would generate questions for research along the lines of Karl Popper’s call to spotlight certain phenomena in all their ramifications, including hypotheticals, rather than just collect data. This would make logically sound answers possible even to “What if” questions. Such questions were frowned upon by historians who were committed to Leopold von Ranke's imperative of objectivity, namely, to present “how things actually were.”

The New Economic Historycombined so-called cliometrics with counterfactual history. Among the pioneering studies was that of Robert W. Fogel on the very small difference that not building American railroads would have generated in the US gross national product in 1890. Fogel was able to calculate this on the assumption that there would have been much more development of other transportation routes, such as canals and roads. Tilly brought the New Economic History into the German economic history scene with similar studies by Stanley L. Engerman and the new institutional economics of Douglass C. North. In 2009, he was awarded the Helmut Schmidt Prize for German-American Economic History by the German Historical Institute Washington for his life's work. Eight former students of his have held or currently hold professorships, seven in Germany and one in the Netherlands. I was among the lucky ones who imbibed his knowledge from the forefront of economic history research and followed his trail.

Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich