The Death of Kurt Tauber

The funeral will be held at the Thompson Memorial Chapel in Williamstown at 860 Main St., on February 8, 2024, beginning at 12:45 and will be live-streamed at:

To the Williams Community,

I write to commemorate the Williams career of Class of 1924 Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, Kurt Tauber, who passed away on January 25, 2024, at the age of 101.

I strongly recommend reading Kurt’s auto-obituary, which I am told he pre-wrote and then revised near the end of his life—a planner to the last!—to experience his remarkable mind and wry wit, not to mention learning about his vivid personal story. I will focus here on his time at Williams: Kurt should have the last word on his life more generally.

Kurt had come to Williams by a circuitous route: he was born in Vienna in 1922 and escaped the encroaching Nazi threat by emigrating to Melrose, MA, in 1939, to live with his uncle and aunt. After pushing through a chemistry major at Harvard in just three years he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943. To quote Kurt, “I was kept a safe distance from enemy aircraft and soldiers [because of his status as a foreign national]. While my contribution to the war effort was negligible, these Army years provided the mental leisure to think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life…. In 1946, Honorable Discharge in hand and the G.I. Bill in back, I put Fortuna to a severe test when I asked Harvard’s Department of Government to accept me in their Ph.D. program, with an S.B. in Chemistry and not a single course in Political Science on my undergraduate transcript!” Students, take note: your major is not necessarily your fate. Kurt’s resulting dissertation, titled with characteristic clarity, was The Foundations of the Doctrine of Self-Defense.

After five years on faculty at the University of Buffalo, he was hired by Williams as the latest, distinguished addition to a political science department that already included such notables as James MacGregor Burns, Fred Greene and Fred Schuman. He soon completed his best-known work, the two-volume Beyond Eagle and Swastika: German Nationalism Since 1945. Writing in Political Science Quarterly in 1968, the scholar of German politics Gordon A. Craig called the books “a tour de force,” “remarkable not only in bulk… but also in scope, systematic exposition, and analytical shrewdness.”

During these years Kurt was also working toward a maturing political viewpoint. He had already felt a deep skepticism toward capitalism. By the late 1960s the antipathy evolved into outright “abhorrence,” which found its most fertile soil in the works of Karl Marx. This was perhaps more remarkable in light of his personal friendships and scholarly closeness with intellectually conservative colleagues, including Robert L. Gaudino. Indeed, former students and faculty colleagues have related that Kurt was popular among students of varied political perspectives, thanks to his intellectual rigor and insistence on serious but respectful exchange. His course on political conservatism in the 1990s drew a number of self-identified conservatives, “despite” being taught by an avowed Marxist.

This same commitment to “uncomfortable learning” led Kurt In later years to become a Gaudino Scholar and chair of the Gaudino Committee. Among the committee’s contributions, they helped encourage the college’s commitment to summer learning experiences and summer project stipends.

In the classroom, Kurt could be demanding. In an oral history he recorded for the college, he said, “the person that I latched on to and who became very important to me was Bob Gaudino. I really became convinced that he was certainly the most rigorous… He assigned 150-175 pages per slot. So that[’s] three times 175 pages. These students read something like 500 pages a week. So I said, ‘Well this is a serious college.’… And so my early syllabi looked very Gaudinoesque. I assigned enormous quantities. The students were hopping all over the place, staying up no doubt all hours. I stayed up all hours since I’m a slow reader. I pulled a lot of all-nighters in order to keep up with my own syllabus.”

A truer description might be that Kurt was “meticulous.” Frederick L. Schuman Professor of International Relations Michael MacDonald points out that a few books still on the college library shelves bear Kurt’s detailed marginal comments, often written in his distinctive aquamarine ink. At this point I am duty-bound to remind you: please do not write in college library books! But Kurt’s marginalia are a window into his rigorous mind. They include precise corrections of translations and quotations, often from memory, as well as spirited debates with the books’ authors, including Gramsci, Althusser and other influential theorists. Michael MacDonald notes that defacing books was out of character for Kurt, but was moved to do so by his drive to introduce students to analytical and dialectical modes of thinking. If you stumble upon any of these traces, know that you have discovered a unique bit of Williams intellectual history.

That passion for teaching was felt by his students. One of them, Bob Snyder ’68, writes:

Kurt’s formal manner was leavened by his commitment to his students and passion for intellectual engagement. He always had time to spend with students discussing their work. And even though he had his own well-known political philosophy, he was most committed to well thought-out and argued analysis. Flabby thinking was not accepted from any perspective.

Mark Reinhardt, Class of 1956 Professor of American Civilization, came to Williams during Kurt’s later years, and recalls seeing him in pedagogical action:

In my first few years on the faculty I had to spend a lot of weekends in the office. I would often be alone, but then Kurt would appear every Sunday evening. He asked his more experienced students to present to his intro classes, so he would meet with them to thoroughly refine their presentations. By then he was near retirement, and it took a lot of his time and energy. But Kurt didn’t mind, because he really cared about his students and enjoyed working with them.

By that time Kurt had spent eight years as chair of political science, 1976-1984, after which he became the Class of 1924 Professorship of Political Science. He earned many honors and accolades from the outside world, as well, including being named a Fellow of the American Council on Learned Societies and a Fulbright Fellow, as well as receiving important grants from the American Philosophical Society and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others.

He was also deeply involved in work that reflected his and Esther’s social views. This is evidenced by the frequency with which his name appears in media coverage of various causes, ranging from his role in Vietnam era anti-war protests and labor activism to protests against the Gulf War and the Patriot Act when he was in his 70s and 80s. During the late 1980s he and Esther also became locally prominent after they organized a search and rescue effort to find Esther’s sister, the late Helen Duke, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and had wandered away from a community event in Williamstown. Helen was rescued nine days later by two Pownal residents, one of whom, James Baker, was a staff member at the college heating plant. In the Berkshire Eagle, Kurt and Esther thanked the Berkshires community for their support and implored readers to consider other families of the missing, who might lack the resources for such an extensive search.

As foreshadowed, this notice has only touched lightly on the Taubers’ rich life off the Williams campus. Kurt’s obituary provides many more details on his and Esther’s varied interests, and especially about their love for their daughter, Gwen, about whom Kurt should have the final say: “It was in Buffalo that Esther and I—after eleven years of marriage—celebrated, on the happiest day of our lives, the birth of our daughter Gwen. In fact, I regard my genetic contribution to the creation of that magnificent human being as my most significant accomplishment.” Esther Tauber sadly passed away in 1998. Gwen now lives in Holland with her family and has built a distinguished career as an art conservator.

In closing any account of Kurt Tauber’s life, I would be remiss not to talk about food. Kurt and Esther were true gourmands: many are the former colleagues and friends who experienced (and sometimes barely survived!) their epic six- and seven-course meals of classic European cuisine, accompanied by paired wines and lively conversation. The couple eventually assembled a cookbook, which they launched with a local cooking demonstration by food expert James Beard. They also famously kept a small box of index cards in the entryway of their home, where they recorded the names of their guests and they were served: Kurt told the Berkshire Sampler in 1976, “I never (repeat, never) serve my guests the same dish twice.” This commitment to a rich diet was somehow of a piece with his Marxist scholarship and teaching, in the sense that both were rigorously practiced, deeply humane… and relished to the full. A 2023 Winter Study on Austrian culture and cuisine taught by Sophia Klingenberg, wife of Professor of Statistics Bernhard Klingenberg, was inspired by memories of those sumptuous meals at the Taubers’ home.

Regarding plans for a celebration of Kurt’s life, I will close by quoting from his obituary one last time:

“The funeral will be held at the Thompson Memorial Chapel in Williamstown at 860 Main St., on February 8, 2024, beginning at 12:45. The flammable parts of my body—in the ecologically useful form of ashes—will be buried in the Williams College Cemetery, Williamstown, Ma., beside Esther’s ashes after the service. A reception shall follow at the Williams Faculty Club on 968 Main St. in Williamstown from 2-4pm. If you feel sorry that I died, or sympathize with those who might be mourning, and wish to say so, please come to my funeral or email my daughter Gwen at [email protected] or snail mail her at Nieuwe Kerkstraat 401, 1018VK Amsterdam, NL, but e-mailing is cheaper, faster and more ecological.”

Kurt Tauber was engaged and active even in his last years, as he passed his centennial. I have in my archives several wonderfully encouraging emails that he sent me in recent years, including while we were working to respond to the pandemic. He never failed to boost my spirits! Although he retired from here several decades ago, Kurt’s absence from Williams will still be acutely felt.

So, reassuringly, will the influence of his devotion to teaching, his intelligence, his gentle humor and his deep care for everyone in our community.