Gordon A. Craig

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Gordon Craig (1991) with the Order Pour le Mérite

Gordon Alexander Craig (born November 26, 1913 in Glasgow, Scotland; † October 30, 2005 in Portola Valley, California) was a US historian and writer of Scottish descent. His main fields of work were German history and diplomatic studies.


Craig’s temporarily single father emigrated first to Toronto, Canada, and then to Jersey City in the United States in 1925.[1] Gordon became a U.S. citizen in childhood. He first studied in the United States and earned his academic degree in history from Princeton University. His role model there was the historian Walter “Buzzer” Hall (1884-1962).[1] In the summer of 1935, he toured Germany for the first time with a group of students. His work scholarship, which enabled him to study the development of the National Socialist state and the everyday life of the population under National Socialism in Germany at close quarters through participant observation, established the young historian’s lifelong focus of work. He was subsequently awarded a two-year Rhodes Scholarship and spent it at Balliol College, Oxford University, in the United Kingdom. His academic teachers there were Benedict Humphrey Sumner and Llewellyn Woodward.[2]

During World War II, he served in the United States Marine Corps and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). According to his former student Michael Stürmer, this is where his precise knowledge and preference for the subject of Germany stems from. According to the phrase “know your enemy , he had the task to collect everything about the psychology, traditions and command tactics of the Wehrmacht as a Prussian-German army and to write it down for the purpose of instructing the US officers. Through this activity he gained so much in-depth interest in and love for his subject that he stayed with it for life.

After the war, he taught at Yale and Princeton Universities, where he held a professorship from 1950 to 1961. His lectures were exceptionally well attended.[1] From 1961 until his retirement in 1979, he taught at Stanford University in California. In 1962 Gordon A. Craig became a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin and received its honorary doctorate in 1983. In 1965 he delivered the Harmon Memorial Lecture in Military History at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Craig was considered a doyen of U.S. historical scholarship, served for many years as president of the American Historical Association, and for a decade, from 1975 to 1985, was vice chairman of the international historians’ association Comité International des Sciences Historiques (CISH).[2]

The study of German history has always been at the heart of Craig’s work. His 1955 study The Prussian-German Army 1640-1945 earned him international acclaim among experts. His 1982 book The Germans (German title: Über die Deutschen) was an attempt to introduce the German people to an Anglo-Saxon readership, but also met with a great response in Germany. It deals with the development of Germany from the Thirty Years’ War to the end of the 20th century and also deals with the contrast between German culture and the darker side of German history, especially National Socialism. Another significant work of Craig’s is the book German History 1866-1945.

The differentiated examination of German history from the perspective of the foreign historian is Craig’s lasting merit. He opposed the idea, widespread after the Second World War, that the German national character was determined by a preference for authoritarian forms of rule and militarism. At the same time, he criticized attempts to portray National Socialism as an “operational accident” of German history without deeper roots.

Thus Craig already considered the founding of the German Empire in 1871 by Otto von Bismarck to be a tragedy and also referred to the problematic role of the Prussian-German army as a “state within the state”. Craig interpreted the German history of the 19th and early 20th centuries as a conflict between enlightened spirit and authoritarian power – a conflict that was mostly decided in favor of power.

Craig was an outstanding representative of international historiography. Yet he remained modest. Asked what he might have been, he once replied: a better historian. The tendency towards self-deprecating detachment was one of the scholar’s most striking characteristics, even though many of his works have long been considered classics.

Craig emphasized that history is not an exact science, but a “humanistic discipline.” As servants of the muse Klio, historians must once again learn to “combine history and literature.” This was an art Craig mastered to a high degree. He always knew how to tell interesting stories, with a touch of old-age humor and a sense of the anecdotal. Above all, he knew how to make fine literature useful as a source for historical writing. To deepen his background knowledge of the Wilhelmine era, he devoted himself enthusiastically to the novels of Theodor Fontane, to whom he dedicated one of his most beautiful books. In Fontane’s novels he praised the ability to penetrate more deeply into the social reality and class conflicts of his time than the “pigtail professors”, the guild historians, had ever been able to do. As a connoisseur and lover of German-language literature, his students and readers in particular appreciated the fact that he formulated his work with a great deal of feeling for language and liveliness, far removed from dry technical jargon.

Craig had a particularly close relationship with Berlin, where he taught as a visiting professor in the 1960s. For years he had been working on a book about the Berlin novels of the 20th century, but was unable to finish it.

Gordon Alexander Craig died in a California retirement home on October 30, 2005, at the age of 91.

Awards (selection)

  • Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1962
  • Member of the American Philosophical Society 1963[3]
  • Historian prize of the city of Münster 1981
  • Grand Federal Cross of Merit 1983
  • Corresponding Member of the British Academy 1986[4]
  • Goethe Medal 1987
  • Member of the Order Pour le Mérite 1990
  • Prize of the Max Geilinger Foundation 1991

Writings (selection)

  • The Second Chance. America And The Peace. Princeton University Press, 1944.
  • with Felix Gilbert (ed.): The Diplomats. Princeton University Press, 1953 .
  • The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945. The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1955.
    • The Prussian-German Army 1640-1945. State within the State. Droste, Düsseldorf 1960; Athenäum-Verlag, Königstein 1980.
  • From Bismarck to Adenauer. Aspects of German statecraft. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore 1958.
    • German statesmanship from Bismarck to Adenauer. Droste, Düsseldorf 1961.
  • The Battle of Königgrätz. Prussia’s victory over Austria 1866. Lippincott, Philadelphia/New York 1964.
    • Königgrätz. Zsolnay, Vienna/Hamburg 1966; Lübbe, Bergisch Gladbach 1977, ISBN 3-404-00724-7; Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-423-10820-7.
  • Europe since 1815. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1964.
    • History of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Two volumes. Beck, Munich
      • Volume 1: From the Congress of Vienna to the outbreak of the First World War 1815-1914. 1978, ISBN 3-406-07214-3.
      • Volume 2: From the First World War to the Present 1914-1975. 1979, ISBN 3-406-07215-1.
    • Special one-volume edition: Geschichte Europas 1815-1980. Vom Wiener Kongress bis zur Gegenwart. Beck, Munich 1983, ISBN 3-406-09567-4; 3rd, completely revised and revised edition, ibid. 1989, ISBN 3-406-33634-5.
  • War, Politics, And Diplomacy. Praeger, New York 1966.
    • War, Politics and Diplomacy. Zsolnay, Vienna/Hamburg 1968; expanded and updated new edition, ibid. 2001, ISBN 3-552-05153-8.
  • Germany 1866-1945. The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1978, ISBN 0-19-822113-4.
    • German History 1866-1945. From the North German Confederation to the End of the Third Reich. Beck, Munich 1980, ISBN 3-406-07815-X; ibid. 1999, ISBN 3-406-42106-7.
  • The Germans. Putnam, New York 1982, ISBN 0-399-12436-5.
    • About the Germans. A historical portrait. Beck, Munich 1982, ISBN 3-406-08834-1; Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-423-10408-2 (number 1 on the Spiegel bestseller list in 1982 and 1983).
  • with Alexander L. George: Force and Statecraft. Diplomatic Problems of Our Time. Oxford University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-19-503115-6.
    • Between War and Peace. Conflict Resolution in History and the Present. Beck, Munich 1983, ISBN 3-406-09858-4; Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1988, ISBN 3-423-10925-4.
  • The End of Prussia. University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, ISBN 0-299-09730-7.
    • The End of Prussia. Eight portraits. Beck, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-406-30600-4; Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1989, ISBN 3-423-11059-7.
  • The Triumph of Liberalism. Zurich in the Golden Age, 1830-1869. Scribner, New York 1988, ISBN 0-684-19062-1.
    • Geld und Geist. Zurich in the Age of Liberalism 1830-1869. Beck, Munich 1988, ISBN 3-406-33311-7.
  • The Politics Of The Unpolitical: German Writers And The Problem Of Power, 1770-1871. Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-19-509499-9.
    • The Politics of the Unpolitical. German Writers and Power. 1770-1871. Beck, Munich 1993, ISBN 3-406-37327-5; Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-423-04701-1.
  • Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich. Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-19-512837-0.
    • About Fontane. Beck, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-406-42642-5.
  • Politics and Culture in Modern Germany. Essays from The New York Review of Books. Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, Palo Alto 1999, ISBN 0-930664-22-1.
  • End of the parade. On German History. Beck, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-406-47618-X.


  • Henning Köhler (ed.): Deutschland und der Westen. Vorträge und Diskussionsbeiträge des Symposions zu Ehren von Gordon A. Craig. Colloquium-Verlag, Berlin 1984, ISBN 3-7678-0638-X.
  • Wolfgang Ribbe: Gordon Craig 1913-2005. in: Jahrbuch für die Geschichte Mittel- und Ostdeutschlands. Vol. 51 (2005) pp. 471-473.
  • Dieter Borchmeyer: What is German? A Nation’s Search for Itself. Berlin 2017, pp. 214-220, ISBN 3-927783-43-9.

Web links

Commons: Gordon A. Craig– Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual references

  1. a b c Lisa Trei Gordon A. Craig, renowned historian of Germany, dead at 91, Stanford Report, 4 November 2005 (obituary, English), accessed 13 August 2012.
  2. a b James J. Sheehan Gordon Craig. US historian wrestling with Germany’s past, The Guardian, 30 November 2005 (obituary, English), accessed 13 August 2012.
  3. Member History: Gordon A. Craig.American Philosophical Society, accessed June 30, 2018.
  4. Deceased Fellows.British Academy, retrieved 17 May 2020.