Abraham’s exile: the sad story of a young Marxist historian

Here’s a paradox in the form of a question: how was it that what one reader for Princeton University Press described c.1979 as “the most important book on 20th-century Germany written in the last 15 years” could lead to its author actually being forced to abandon history and turn to an entirely different field (law) in order to have a career of any kind? The strange “case” of David Abraham emerged because of the way a group of US-based historians hostile to Marxist interpretations of fascism reacted to (and were able to exploit the weaknesses of) his book The Collapse of the Weimar Republic (1981). The campaign that was mounted against Abraham involved charges of “massive scholarly fraud, distortion, fabrication and lying”, and was pursued with such bitterness that the young historian gave up history. The book grew out of a University of Chicago thesis that one of the key campaigners against Abraham himself had described, once the thesis was revised, as “very sound”. (Tim Mason reviewed the book when it was published, describing it as “distinguished”.)

There are three comprehensive accounts of the Abraham affair: a six-column article in the NYT; a summary of the case in The Journal of Historical Review,, and the excellent Jon Wiener’s chapter in his Verso book Professors, Politics and Pop. What follows is a rehash of these sources.

The book’s “thesis was the neo-Marxist one that German Big Business as a group sought to sabotage the late Weimar state by supporting Hitler and the Nazis, the faction they saw as best representing their economic interests, especially in the face of a rising threat from the Left. This thesis … is an old one, stated many times over the years in such well-known works as Arthur Rosenberg’s Der Faschismus als Massenbewegung, Daniel Guérin’s Fascism and Big Business, Robert Brady’s The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, and, perhaps the most sophisticated example, Franz Neumann’s Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. Known as the “classical Marxian interpretation” of Fascism, it retains, in its numerous variations, many adherents on the Left today [This was written late in 1984.] In support of his variant, Abraham cited and quoted from many primary sources which seemed to show just how ardently pro-Nazi and anti-Weimar, for their own narrow ends, were some of Germany’s most important business and financial leaders”. 

When Wiener wrote about the case in The Nation in February 1985 he started by noting, “Two senior historians, one at Yale University and one at the University of California, Berkeley, have devoted their time and professional reputations to destroying the career of a young Marxist historian David Abraham whose book … has been found to contain numerous errors… Abraham’s critics led by Professor Henry A. Turner Jr of Yale and Gerald A. Feldman of Berkeley, seek not just to expose Abraham’s errors but also to make sure that he will never get another academic job”, and then quoted Lawrence Stone as saying “I’ve never seen a witch hunt like this in forty years in two countries”.

First, the weaknesses that exposed Abraham to this ferocious attack; “In the course of researching and writing his book, Abraham misdated and misattributed one document, mistranslated another document in a way that distorted its meaning and treated a paraphrase of a third document as a quotation”. Abraham acknowledged his errors in print and apologised for them. To no avail. Wiener goes on to say, “The campaign against Abraham was begun by Turner, a bitter opponent of Marxist history who had been working for years on a defense of German businessmen in the period immediately preceding the rise of Hitler. Turner became furious after hearing Abraham’s work praised at a March 1983 colloquium on Weimar history at Harvard University”. A few months later, he wrote to the American Historical Review alleging that “Abraham had forged a document showing business support for Hitler in the last days of Weimar”. With Abraham’s application for tenure at Princeton turned down, “Feldman began his (own) campaign of letters and telephone calls to make sure that no university hired Abraham”.  Wherever Abraham made a job application (and these were numerous), Feldman intervened (successfully), and when Princeton University Press planned to bring out a revised edition of Abraham’s book, he wrote to them denouncing it as “fraudulent” and saying “it should be withdrawn from sale”.

The links given above go into the details of this sordid battle against left-wing interpretations of the collapse of Weimar. And for those of you who have access to jstor, Abraham’s brilliant paper in Past & Present 1980 (a summary of the argument of his book which is called “Conflicts within German Industry and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic”) is accessible there. It is quite clear that Abraham’s whole approach to the Weimar crisis was deeply influenced by the argument that Sohn-Rethel had proposed (about the divisions within German capital) in the 1973 German edition of his book Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism.

Since 1991, Abraham has been a professor of law at the University of Miami. The subjects he taught there before retirement included Property, Immigration & Citizenship Law; Citizenship and Identity; Law and the Transition to Capitalism; and, Law and Social Theory. His Miami web site says, modestly, “Prior to entering law school, Professor Abraham taught for many years in the History department of Princeton University”.

(Photo: John Heartfield’s famous photomontage describing Hitler as a “toy in Thyssen’s hand”. It was published in Prague in August 1933.) 

By Jairus Banaji