Skip to main navigation Skip to main content
The University of Southampton
The Parkes Institute

Professor Peter Pulzer (1929-2023)

Published: 2 February 2023
Professor Peter Pulzer
Professor Peter Pulzer. Image used with the kind permission of the LBI London.

The Parkes Institute was saddened to hear of the death of Peter Pulzer, emeritus Professor of Government and Public Administration at All Souls, Oxford, and a longstanding patron and friend of the Institute. In this piece, Professor Neil Gregor reflects on Professor Pulzer's life and legacy.

Peter was born in Vienna to an assimilated Jewish family. He came to Britain as a refugee in early 1939, his family home having been brutally ransacked by the Nazis in the November pogrom only months before. His studies took him first to Cambridge and then, in 1962 and via external study at London, to Oxford. Here he published the book that made his scholarly name – The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany & Austria (1964). Like many German- and Austrian-Jewish refugees Peter also became heavily involved in the work of our friends and colleagues at the Leo Baeck Institute, currently housed at Queen Mary University London.

Peter’s work was attuned from the outset to the many varieties of antisemitic discourse that coursed through the German lands; to the ebb and flow of its political manifestations; and to the differences both between Germany and Austria and within different regions of each of these, particularly in the latter. Yet he was equally firm in his overarching contention that antisemitism was part of a full-frontal assault on the values of liberalism – he saw antisemitism as part of a fundamental reaction to the advent of the rule of law, of constitutionalism, and of a culture of rights that sought to provide both de jure and de facto equality for all.

If subsequent scholarship has pointed more to the ambiguities and ambivalences of the European liberal tradition where Jewish religiosity, belonging and practice are concerned (ambiguities of which Peter was also well aware), the force of his robust defence of a genuinely liberal polity as the best guarantor of human dignity is as powerful to read as ever.  His argument that antisemitism had not so much faded as naturalised itself more insidiously in German and Austria society before 1914 remains as persuasive as when it first appeared, and his insistence that the dreadful historical outcome of 1933, while not pre-programmed, had certainly not come from nowhere either, remains convincing too.

The book, like all of his work, exudes precision and authority, but also humanity and wit. These characteristics were not confined to his academic writing - his mind was as vigorously formidable when the conversation moved to a less formal setting.  One fond memory involves sitting in a restaurant in Oxford, trying to persuade a skeptical Peter that we should order a bottle of Lebanese red wine.  ‘It’s a very good wine’, I said, thinking that this was argument enough. ‘There are lots of good wines’, he retorted.  This being impossible to gainsay, my position had been demolished: we drank his preferred Medoc. Needless to say, it was excellent.

To a younger or more inexperienced interlocutor the combination of mental power, scholarly aura and stooping presence could be intimidating at first.  But, like more than one refugee scholar of his generation, he had a particular way of encouraging younger, perhaps shy or uncertain, scholars – doubtless acutely aware from his own experiences of the thin, precarious line that separated having an opportunity from being blocked off from that opportunity, and wishing to encourage others to flourish.  He retained, for all his superficially stern demeanour, a gloriously boyish twinkle in his eye – again, this feels familiar from others of his refugee background.

For all that his life’s work was animated by his desire to understand National Socialism and its place in modern German history, he recognised that antisemitism was not just a problem of German political culture.  As the regular references in The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism to French, Romanian or Russian antisemitism make clear, he felt that others had as much, if not more, to account for if one stopped the clock in 1914. His interest in elements of similarity between antisemitism and the racisms endured by others testified to, and enforced, his commitment to a robust liberal universalism that was never about purely Jewish sensibilities either.

His argument that ‘the anti-Semitism that mattered in the German Empire and the Weimar Republic was not that of a handful of parliamentary demagogues, nor even of vandalism, physical violence and terrorism, but the pervasive non-acceptance, within significant sectors of German society, of the Jew as a truly equal fellow-citizen’ provides a powerful starting point for pondering varieties of racism far closer to home. 1 His insistence that ‘there is no audience without a prior willingness to listen’, meanwhile, is as clear and powerful a rebuttal as one could wish of those who will always claim simply to have been misled, and thus refuse responsibility for the consequences of that which they endorsed. 2


[1] Peter Pulzer, ‘Introduction to Revised Edition’, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (Revised Edition, London, 1988), xiv.
[2] Ibid., xvi.

Privacy Settings