Detlef Mühlberger, 1943-2008

November 13, 2008

Detlef Mühlberger, professor of modern German history at Oxford Brookes University, has died of lung cancer at the age of 65.

Born in Germany on 6 May 1943, he was immediately caught up in the global conflict raging around him when his father, a Luftwaffe medic, was killed in the Russian campaign – listed simply as “last seen somewhere south of Moscow”. Most of the younger Mühlberger’s scholarly career was to be devoted to the nature of Nazism.

Often separated from his sister and widowed mother, his early life was difficult as he passed through a series of foster homes. When his mother married a sergeant in the British Army, the family moved to England in the early 1950s, although this was not always a particularly tolerant environment for a German child.

He attended a secondary-modern school, but became interested in acquiring a more academic education and took classes in Latin to enable him to go to university. After graduating in history from King’s College London in 1965, he embarked on a PhD at University College London, financing his studies by working in a variety of roles, including landscape gardener and long-distance lorry driver.

Professor Mühlberger took a teaching job at Cambridge Technical College and in 1979 moved on to a senior lecturership at Oxford Polytechnic, later Oxford Brookes, rising through the ranks to become professor in 2005.

His thesis on “The Rise of National Socialism in Westphalia, 1920-1933” – the region in which his home­town of Iserlohn lies – was completed in 1975 and argues that the Nazis were a people’s party, supported by all strata of German society, including the working classes. This put him at odds with his supervisor, Francis Carsten, who adhered to the then-mainstream view that the Nazi movement was largely an outcome of lower middle-class resentments.

However, Professor Mühlberger’s position, summarised in his 1991 book Hitler’s Followers: Studies in the Sociology of the Nazi Movement, is now widely accepted. His two-volume edition of extracts from Hitler’s most important newspaper, Hitler’s Voice: The Völkische Beobachter, 1920-1933 (2004), makes a further major contribution to understanding the rise of the Nazi Party.

Donal Lowry, reader in imperial and Commonwealth history at Oxford Brookes, describes Professor Mühlberger as a man of great moral integrity, “animated by a sense that the Nazis offered a ‘warning from history’”, as well as “a supreme exemplar of archival research”. He also remembers “a most generous host”, notable for a “dry, self-deprecating sense of humour, and entertainingly direct and acutely apposite comments, not least in staff meetings”.

Professor Mühlberger died on 6 October 2008 and is survived by his wife, Sue, and daughter, Tania.

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