In Memoriam: Henry Turner, Helped Shape Way History Is Taught at Yale

Henry Ashby Turner, the Charles J. Stille Professor Emeritus of History, died at Yale-New Haven Hospital on Dec. 17 from complications of melanoma.

A leading scholar of modern German history, Turner was the author of several books and many articles, among them a study of the German statesman Gustav Stresemann, “Stresemann and the Politics of the Weimar Republic” (1963), “Faschismus und Kapitalismus in Deutschland [Fascism and Capitalism in Germany]” (1972), “German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler” (1985) and “Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power” (1996).

Turner received his bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University in 1954 and subsequently studied at the Universität Munchen and the Freie Universität Berlin. He received his doctoral degree from Princeton University in 1960 under the direction of Gordon Craig.

Turner taught in the Yale Department of History for 44 years before his retirement in 2002. He served as chair of the department 1976-1979 and was the master of Davenport College 1981-1991.

Turner helped to shape the way history is taught at Yale and affected the historical perspective of generations of students who took his classes. He taught the core undergraduate course in modern German history from his arrival at Yale through his retirement. He also taught seminars on fascism and Nazi Germany, emphasizing as a teacher and scholar the importance of verifiable empirical evidence over grand theories in understanding history, according to his colleague Frank Turner, the John Hay Whitney Professor of History and director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“He was legendary among both undergraduates and graduate students for his high standards,” comments Frank Turner.

In the mid-1980s, Turner ignited a furor in the academic community when he found serious flaws in the scholarship of a rising young professor at Princeton University. The controversy surrounded the book “The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis,” in which the author, David Abraham, argued that German “big business” allied itself with Hitler expressly to sabotage the advances of the working class under the Weimar state. Turner, who disagreed with Abraham’s thesis before he questioned its supporting scholarship, later publicly shared with fellow historians his discovery that Abraham had misquoted, misrepresented and, in some key cases, fabricated source material. Many in the academic world defended Abraham’s classic Marxist interpretation, arguing that his scholarly transgressions did not compromise the central thesis. What began as an internecine battle among historians later spilled over into the mainstream press.

Turner’s detailed account of German industrialists’ role in the rise of Nazism, “German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler,” drew a more nuanced picture of the complicated relations between two mutually mistrustful forces. Challenging conventional wisdom, Turner concluded that “big business” on the whole was not a major contributor to the ascent to power of the Nazi party.

In 1998, faced with a class action lawsuit from Holocaust survivors, General Motors hired Turner to investigate whether the company or its German subsidiary Opel aided the Nazis during World War II, as was alleged. Turner assembled a research team to scour the historical archives for relevant material, which he then used as the basis for his “General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker,” published by Yale University Press in 2005.

Turner received numerous awards including a Stimson Fellowship to Germany; fellowships from the Guggenheim, Fulbright and Rockefeller foundations; an honorary degree from his alma mater; and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

A former student, Peter Hayes of Northwestern University, notes that Turner’s work as an historian “changed how people thought about fundamental interpretive issues.” He adds, “It was always a pleasure to read his work; he was a remarkable mentor and a truly fine citizen of his university.”

Turner is survived by his wife of 50 years, Jane; his sons Bradley of Baltimore, Maryland, and Matthew of New York City, New York; his daughter Sarah Ryan of Watertown, Massachussetts; and six grandchildren.

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