Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Polymathic Cultural Historian, Dies at 81

Have you ever wondered why American railroad tracks are winding but British railroad tracks are usually straight? What was the traditional European breakfast drink before coffee? How did the introduction of the tube change family life? Why did the Confederate battle flag become such an enduring symbol? who is

Over the course of four decades, the learned cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch explores mass transit, spices and stimulants, commercial lighting, and the social legacy of defeat in some ten landmark books. I enjoyed the conundrum.

He wrote them in his native German (mostly translated into English) from his apartment in Manhattan, where he spent the winter, and from his home in Berlin, where he died in hospital on March 26 at the age of 81. . His death was not widely reported outside of Europe. .

His wife, Herma von Kieseritzky, said the cause was bacterial meningitis complicated by sepsis, Covid-19, and pneumonia.

Author Lawrence Wexler wrote to members of the New York Institute for the Humanities after Mr. Sibelbusch’s death: Mr. Wexler was the director and Mr. Sibelbusch was a fellow.

The German national weekly Die Zeit called Mr. Sibelbusch “a master of cultural history research.”

His publications include The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (1977); Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants (1980); Night: The Industrialization”. Light of the Nineteenth Century” (1983), “A Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery” (2001), “Three New Trades: Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Reflections on Germany, 1933-1939” (2005).

One critic called Mr. Sibelbusch’s “A Taste of Paradise” a “mind-sharpening dose of cerebral candy.”

His memoir about commuting between two continents, The Other Side: Living and Researching Between New York and Berlin, will be published in 2021.

Sibelbusch’s concise and provocative book has been praised by scholars for its microscopic connection between history and everyday life. But unusually for a popular (unpretentious) intellectual, he was also captivated by his eccentric curiosity and attracted a wide audience to participate in his feat.

New York Times Food Writer Molly O’Neill called “Tastes of Paradise” “a dose of mind-sharpening brain candy.”

His book on railways won the German Nonfiction Prize in 1978. In 2003, the Berlin Academy of Arts awarded him the Heinrich Mann Prize. In 2013 he was awarded the Lessing Prize of the City of Hamburg in recognition of his contribution to German culture.

Sibelbusch’s book on railways won the German Prize for Non-Fiction in 1978.

Wolfgang Walter Schivelbusch was born on November 26, 1941 in Wilmersdorf, Berlin, to Helmet Ludolf and Waldtraut Erika Schivelbusch. His father is a businessman and his mother is a housewife.

In the late 1960s, he studied literature, philosophy and sociology in Frankfurt and Berlin under Theodor Adorno and Peter Sondy. He received his higher education at a time of post-World War II social constraints and turbulent student protests against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

He completed his PhD in the early 1970s at the Free University of Berlin under Hans Meyer. His thesis was on Bertolt Brecht’s socialist drama. His intellectual fathers also included Walter his Benjamin, Norbert Elias and Siegfried Krakauer.

Sibelbusch spent most of his career as a private academic, free from academic constraints but dependent on grants and book advances. From 1995 until 2000 he conducted research on memoirs at the Max He Planck Institute in Göttingen. After he returned to Germany permanently in 2014, he was a Senior He Fellow of the Leibniz Center for Literary and Cultural Studies.

He visited the United States shortly after Richard M. Nixon was elected president in 1968 to try to determine whether the country was on the verge of a dangerous shift to the right. He returned home in his 1973, researching his writings on railroads, and began his annual winter residency in New York.

Particularly drawn to the free-roaming stacks of New York University and New York’s public libraries, Mr. Sibelbusch worked in New York from November to May, spending the remaining five months in an apartment in Berlin’s West End. rice field. Country, a converted blacksmith shop in Blankenberg, in his retreat, a village of about 60 inhabitants 55 miles northwest of Berlin, with his wife von Ms. Kieseritzky, a prominent bookstore.

Besides her, he has a brother, Klaus.

Over the decades, Mr. Sibelbusch has uncovered mysteries that most people would have missed. Among his findings:

Labor costs were high in America, so British tracks ran in straight lines, so it was cheap to simply lay tracks around natural obstacles such as hills and rivers.

in Europe, beer soup (eggs, butter, and salt are heated, added to beer, and poured over a roll or white bread) was the breakfast drink before it was replaced by coffee in the 18th century.

The gas main changed family life. Because it eliminated the hearth as the focal point of home life by giving the individual a personal light. They also helped displace private companies by granting municipal or regional gas monopolies.

Migrant workers and farmers introduced the St. Andrews Cross to the Confederate flag, and the burning cross of the Highlanders was adopted as the symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. Speaking of the post-Civil War American South, Sibelbusch said: cabinet magazine In 2006, he said, “Romanizing defeat can be far more powerful than romanticizing victory.” One reason is that “after the victory, the winning side has no idea what to do other than distribute the spoils.”

“The South has turned the distinction between battlefield failure and moral superiority into a central tenet of its new identity,” he wrote.

Regarding the Iraq War, Mr. Siebel Bush was surprised that the surrender ceremony took place without the main participants, the losers. “Clearly that scene was a scene of disguised surrender, consciously or not, for the simple reason that the defeated regime vanished into thin air,” he wrote in a 2003 New York Times opinion essay. wrote. The surrender trophy was left empty-handed.

“You cannot eat your enemy,” he concluded.

Sibelbusch’s insatiable curiosity sometimes prompted questions he felt compelled to answer, and other times he suggested answers to questions he hadn’t asked yet.

His aim, as the German scholar Eva Geulen wrote recently on the Leibniz Center blog, is, “Rather than repeating what is already known, we should better explore the lesser-known and unknown. to be known.”

“His sensitivity to neglected details was due to his individual sensitivity to concrete, from which he should not have followed any rules.

“His subject found him,” she added, “not the other way around.”

Christopher Schuetze contributed to the report.

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