I got an email from my college today regarding Professor Werner Warmbrunn.
Professor Werner Warmbrunn was briefly my faculty advisor, and not so briefly my teacher, as I went through college. I took his class in Nazi Germany, and he taught the history seminar that exposed us to a variety of ways of doing history, the one requirement for a history degree.
He grew up in Germany, and his family fled the country before the war. He told us how he regarded it as great fun to slide back into Germany for quick visits with friends, taking trains through less-traveled checkpoints, until one time on leaving the Gestapo caught up with him. Since he was on his way out the authorities contented themselves merely with telling him never to return—which was lucky—and he didn't, not till after the war anyway.
Several times he stopped to give me a lift across town or across campus as he saw me walking; on one occasion I had mentioned a particular song (I don't recall now what it was) that I got a kick out of because it was a send-up of a particular style of music. I think it may have been on the radio at the moment. The next time he dropped me off somewhere he remarked that he had been thinking about what I said about it, and about how difficult it was even after living in the United States for all these years, to pick up on such subtle details of the culture. He wondered about what else he might have been missing. All I could say is that I was born here, and I missed subtleties of the culture all the time.
When I once missed a history seminar meeting due to the flu and showed up later at his office to apologize and see if there was anything I needed to do to catch up he was deeply concerned. Not that I'd missed class; he was concerned about my health and wanted the infirmary to check me out. (He probably had reason to be concerned; I was pushing myself fairly hard at that point, eating irregularly, losing weight, and to top it all off just recovered from a short but severe bout with the flu.) I assured him that I was fine, but the incident stuck with me, and I made a point of taking better care of myself after that.
He was one hell of a teacher. Mind you, I had some damn good teachers in college, but I remember him better than most. He could seem almost woolly-minded at times, the caricature absent-minded professor, but then he would come around and put a different spin on things with an adroit comment or a penetrating question. I'm not putting this well, and I'm actually crying as I write this, damn it. He inspired real affection in his class. As the mood of the nation veered to the right he commented on how he'd seen things like this before, in his youth, and he worried about the future of our nation. One political figure in particular worried him. He had previously remarked (not in this connection) that in theory he could have changed the course of history and prevented much misery for the world, the implication being (or so we took it) through the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Once, before class, somebody suggested that we could really ease Professor Warmbrunn's mind through the timely assassination of this American politician. We could make it a class project. It was gallows humor, but our concern was real—both for our teacher, and for the nation.
He was a genuine historian. He could explain Nazi positions better than Goebbels himself, and be fair even to the lowest scum in the regime. Mind you, I don't mean that there was ever the slightest doubt where his sympathies lay; it's just that sympathies came after the business of actually doing history. When somebody in our Nazi Germany class suggested that the resources Hitler had diverted from the war effort to exterminating the Jews had cost him victory in some significant battle, Professor Warmbrunn said that it would be nice to think that. He wished that it were true; it would be a measure of justice. And then he laid out the reasons why it could not possibly be true, using hard facts and firm data. I don't know that he was right; I was merely struck by the way he kept personal feelings away from the business of evaluating information.
I did my final paper in that class on the Stab-in-the-Back myth, comparing it to other instances of beliefs firmly held in the teeth of the evidence. One key paper on my subject was long, and in German, and my German was really not up to the task of going through it all. I mentioned my problem during a paper conference, and he took my photocopy of the paper, read it, gave me a brief summary of its sections, and highlighted the parts that were key to my research. Now that was over and beyond the call of duty, damn it—although I do think he was intrigued by the particular direction I was taking with it, and wanted to see what I came up with.
God, I haven't thought of this stuff in years. He was a good guy, and a good teacher, and he passed away peacefully in his sleep yesterday afternoon.