A Biographical Sketch
of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was a German soldier who became a dedicated American, a professor who bitterly attacked his academic colleagues for shirking their responsibility to society, and a Christian whose unshakable faith in the power of the word led him beyond the church. And yet a respected scholar of our day has called Rosenstock-Huessy “by Jewish standards an apostate, by Christian standards a heretic, and by academic standards an oddball.”
If apostates existed, they were Rosenstock-Huessy’s parents and maternal grandparents, none of whom were observant, or even religious. (His maternal grandfather Moritz Rosenstock admitted Gentile students to the “Samsonschule,” Wolfenbüttel’s famous Jewish school, and sent his daughter Paula to the local–Protestant–teacher’s college; she in turn refused to allow the circumcision of her only son.) Rosenstock-Huessy was recognized as a completely orthodox Christian by Leo Weismantel, Carl Muth, Ernst Michel, and Joseph Wittig—Catholics in the vanguard of the movement later vindicated by Vatican II. Indeed, he was “Catholic” enough in the decade after his baptism that his wife Margrit’s native Protestantism presented difficulties to begin with. He started out as an orthodox academic, if one who dared write that “language is wiser than the one who speaks it.” (In 2013, Hanna Vollrath reported that his early works on medieval law are still respected in their fields.) He himself admitted that it was his friend Franz Rosenzweig who “forced him to renounce academe.”
Eugen Moritz Friedrich Rosenstock was born in Berlin on July 6, 1888, the son of Theodor and Paula Rosenstock. Theodor had wanted to pursue a scholarly career, but his father’s death in 1870 left him responsible for his widowed stepmother and stepsister and so, with a loan from a wealthy uncle, he started a small private bank; he eventually represented small bankers on the board of the Berlin Stock Exchange. Paula and Theodor had seven surviving children, of whom Eugen was the fourth child, and their only son.
After attending a school for wealthy families for several years, Eugen transferred to the Joachimsthaler Gymnasium, a school known for its rigorous academic standards, where he was not allowed to become the official “head of the class” (primus) because he was Jewish.
Although his passions were history and philology, Eugen took his father’s advice and opted for the law, studying at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg, and Berlin. While he had flirted with the idea of becoming a minister as a teenager, it was not until 1906, convalescing in Switzerland after severe appendicitis, that he accepted the advice of the aunt and great-uncle who had come to keep him company and formally become a Christian; and it was not until December of 1909 that he was baptized. It was not a drastic conversion; he always said that he was raised Christian except by name. His family had always celebrated Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost with chorales, as “German” holidays. However, his faith was central to his work in law and history, as well as his work pursuing what he called “the social embodiment of truth.” In 1909, at the age of 21, he received a doctorate in law from the University of Heidelberg. Three years later, he had become a Privatdozent, teaching constitutional law and the history of law at the University of Leipzig–at 24, the youngest Privatdozent in Germany at the time.
Early in 1914, Rosenstock went to Florence to help his brother-in-law Hermann Kantorowicz with a research project. There he met a young Swiss woman, Margrit Hüssy, who was studying art history. While they declared themselves engaged the day they met, the outbreak of the war delayed their marriage until 1915; her parents regarded them as married as of the originally planned wedding date (his parents did not). Drafted at once as a lieutenant in the mounted artillery, he was stationed at or near the Western front throughout the war, including 18 months before Verdun. During this period he organized courses for the troops, including one that brought officers and enlisted men together as equals. In 1916, he and his friend Franz Rosenzweig, who was stationed on the Eastern front, exchanged their letters on Judaism and Christianity, published in 1935 as a special chapter in the volume of Rosenzweig’s letters. The letters were translated into English as Judaism Despite Christianity. It has long been recognized as a milestone in the history of “Jewish-Christian argument.”
Rosenstock was keenly aware that World War I was a historical watershed. At the end of the war, not wishing to return to teaching at the University of Leipzig, he sought professional options better suited to a changed world. Together with Paul Riebensahm, a member of the board of Daimler-Benz, the German car manufacturer, edited the first factory newspaper in Germany, the Daimler Werkzeitung. Together with Leo Weismantel, Werner Picht, Hans Ehrenberg, Karl Barth, and Viktor von Weizsäcker, he founded the Patmos Verlag, publishing works focused on new religious, philosophical, and social perspectives. Later, he began a journal, Die Kreatur (1926-1930), which was edited by Josef Wittig, a Roman Catholic; Martin Buber, a Jew; and Viktor von Weizsäcker, a Protestant. Among the contributors were Nicholas Berdyaev, Lev Shestov, Franz Rosenzweig, Ernst Simon, Hugo Bergmann, Rudolf Hallo, and Florens Christian Rang. Each of these men had, between 1910 and 1932, in one way or another, offered an alternative to the idealism, positivism, and historicism that dominated German universities. Rosenstock himself published Die Hochzeit des Krieges und der Revolution (The Marriage of War and Revolution, 1920), a collection of current events essays that were replete with visionary thinking and practical warnings of conflicts to come.
In 1921, Margrit and Eugen had a son, Hans. In 1925, they legally changed their family name to Rosenstock-Hüssy, but it was not until after Eugen’s emigration to the United States that he used the hyphenated name professionally.
Although never a Marxist, Rosenstock was invited by a group of trade union representatives to found and direct the Akademie der Arbeit (Academy of Labor) in Frankfurt/Main in 1921. This institution offered courses and seminars for blue-collar workers. Rosenstock resigned in 1923 over differences with the people who had hired him. Nevertheless, he did not give up his involvement with adult education and his efforts to give industrial workers a voice of their own in society.
Rosenstock was awarded a second doctorate in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg in 1923 for his scholarly medieval study, Königshaus und Stämme in Deutschland zwischen 911 und 1250 (The Royal House and the Tribes in Germany between 911 and 1250). He wrote this work in Leipzig and published it in 1914. He then lectured at the Technical University of Darmstadt in the faculty of social science and social history. In 1923, he was offered a job at the University of Breslau as a full professor of German legal history, a position he held until January 30, 1933.
In 1924, Rosenstock published Angewandte Seelenkunde (Practical Knowledge of the Soul) in which he first outlined his radically new method for the social sciences. This new approach to characterizing and understanding the social sciences was based on language, on the spoken word, and it used grammar as a method to analyze issues in the social sciences. He later called the approach “metanomics.” This method remained at the heart of all his later works and was discussed more comprehensively in his two-volume Soziologie (1956-1958). Volume I was entitled, “On the Forces of Common Life (When Space Governs)”, and Volume II carried the title, “On the Forces of History (When the Times Are Obeyed).” He further elaborated these ideas in another two-volume book, Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine Leibhaftige Grammatik in Vier Teilen (The Speech of Mankind: A Personal Grammar in Four Parts, 1963-1964).
An inspiring and admired teacher, Rosenstock was also responsible for adult education in the area around Breslau. In response to and together with some of his students, he helped organize voluntary work service camps for students, farmers, and workers to address the appalling living conditions and atrocious labor conditions at coal mines in Waldenburg, Silesia: the “Löwenberger Arbeitslager.” (Many of the participants in the Löwenberg initiative later formed the core of the Kreisau Circle, a German resistance movement against the Nazis, including Helmuth James von Moltke; his cousin, Carl-Dietrich von Trotha; Rosenstock’s academic assistant, Horst von Einsiedel, and Adolf Reichwein.) In 1929, Rosenstock was elected vice-president of the World Association of Adult Education, in London.
During that time a friend of Rosenstock’s, the Catholic priest (and writer) Josef Wittig, was excommunicated and deprived of his professorship of church history. Rosenstock came to his defense and was able to achieve official emeritus status for Wittig, which safeguarded his pension. Together they published a church history for the postwar age: Das Alter der Kirche (The Age of the Church) in 1927-1928. The first two volumes contain historical essays on the two millennia of Church history, and the third documents the injustice of Wittig’s excommunication.
While still teaching at Breslau, Rosenstock wrote and published the first of his major works: Die Europäischen Revolutionen—Volkscharaktere und Staatenbildung (The European Revolutions and the Character of Nations; 1931). This book showed how 1,000 years of European history had been formed by five hundred years of church upheaval and five hundred years of national revolutions that collectively made up a single that era that came to an end in World War I.
On January 30, 1933, Germany fell to National Socialism, and Rosenstock resigned from the university at once, but remained in Germany, without working. By the end of that year and with the help of C. J. Friedrich, professor of government at Harvard University and the only person Rosenstock knew in the United States, he was appointed Kuno Francke Lecturer in German Art and Culture at Harvard.
It was at Harvard that Rosenstock-Huessy encountered the strongest opposition to his ideas in social history and other topics, all of which were based on his Christian faith. Rosenstock-Huessy frequently mentioned God in class and often attacked pure, objective academic thinking, a teaching tradition his colleagues considered a prerequisite for high scholarship. Profound differences of opinion ensued and led, in 1935, to his accepting an appointment as professor of social philosophy at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He made his home in nearby Norwich, Vermont. He taught at Dartmouth until his retirement in 1957, having inspired an entire generation of students.
Despite the falling-out with Harvard, Rosenstock-Huessy had made important friendships in Cambridge that sustained him through his “exile” in New Hampshire. Henry Copley Greene and Rosalind Huidekoper Greene helped him reforge his earlier book on revolutions for an American audience; the reimagined book became Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (1938). Their son-in-law, George Allen Morgan, one of Alfred North Whitehead’s Harvard students and the author of the classic What Nietzsche Means, helped assemble The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun (1946). (Whitehead also strongly supported Rosenstock-Huessy in his disagreements with members of the Harvard history department.) At the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, and other prominent figures, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Rosenstock-Huessy to lead the creation of a special training camp for leaders of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Vermont. Involving mainly students from Dartmouth, Radcliffe, and Harvard, its purpose was to train young leaders for an expanded program that instead of isolating unemployed youth in work-service programs, would bring volunteers from other walks of life to join them. A pre-existing CCC “side camp” near Sharon, Vermont, was chosen and named Camp William James, in honor of that philosopher’s search for a moral equivalent of war. The camp enjoyed a short term of success but was disbanded when the United States entered World War II. The Camp William James model of voluntary work in service to communities in need has been cited as sometimes been mentioned in connection with the development of the Peace Corps.
After World War II, Rosenstock-Huessy was a frequent guest professor at many universities in both the United States and Germany, lecturing and writing well into his 70’s. His output includes 40 books and hundreds of essays, articles, and monographs, most of which may be accessed on this site, along with the hundreds of hours of recorded lectures.
Margrit Rosenstock-Huessy died in 1959. In 1960, Freya von Moltke, the widow of the German resistance leader Helmuth James von Moltke, who had been executed by the Nazis, came to share Rosenstock-Huessy’s life. (Her husband had worked with Rosenstock-Huessy on the Loewenberg work camps in the late 1920’s.) Rosenstock-Huessy died on February 24, 1973. His extraordinary insights continue to influence the lives of a growing number of people from around the world and from all walks of life.