In Memoriam Götz Langkau (1935–2024)

11 January 2024 - 18:38

On 9 January 2024, we received the sad news that Götz Langkau had passed away. Although many people knew that he had not been doing well in recent years, the news came as a shock.

Götz belonged to a generation of IISH staff that restored the profile of the Institute, especially through his contributions to scholarly source publications. He exemplified reliable historical scholarship combined with social commitment.

In 1953, Götz fled the GDR at age 17. In 1956, he enrolled at West Berlin's Freie Universität. Majoring in German studies, history, philosophy, and sociology, the young student pursued a broad intellectual scope. During this period, interest in Marx resumed at universities in the West, including Götz's mentor, the philosopher and sociologist Hans-Joachim Lieber. In the late 1950s, initial signs appeared of what culminated in student revolts in all major university cities in the world a decade later in 1968. West-German students were of course specifically affected by the German partition. As this issue was not only military but above all ideological, socialism was a crucial issue for this group. Götz became active in the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS). This organization gradually drifted away from the encompassing SPD, leading to a rift in 1961. Götz was active precisely during these years and knew many of the activists who later became prominent in the German student movement and in left-wing politics.

In 1963, Götz was working as a student assistant at the Otto-Suhr-Institut für Politikwissenschaft of the Freie Universität, when A.J.C. Rüter, director of the IISH from 1953 until his death in 1965, contacted Lieber to enquire whether he knew of a candidate for a vacancy at the German department of the IISH. This department managed one of the original core collections at the IISH, the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels archive. Due to the rapid growth of the collection before the war, the removal of the archives to Germany during the German occupation, the messy restitution after 1945, and, moreover, a severe lack of funds, access to all these collections and thus also the Marx-Engels collections was deeply inadequate. In one of his most important achievements, Rüter obtained a grant from the Ford Foundation, making it possible to catch up, thereby ensuring the accessibility this world heritage merited. Götz accepted the offer from Rüter to come work at the IISH, becoming one of the last to work in Amsterdam with Ford project funding. He later said that he was struck by the patriarchal ambience that prevailed under Rüter at the IISH. He had not experienced this at the Freie Universität. In 2013, he wrote an article in Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung. Neue Folge about the Ford project and its remarkable meanderings at times.

While working within the Ford project, Götz acquired in-depth knowledge about the German labour movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The German department of the IISH was one of the most important within the institute at the time, both because of the aforementioned archives and because of the prominent intellectual personalities who had worked and were still working there. People such as Hans Stein, Werner Blumenberg, and Siegfried Bahne were defining scholars. In 1965 decisive events occurred for the IISH and for Götz. Rüter and Blumenberg died that year, and soon afterwards Götz joined the permanent staff. In the same year, he married Ulla Alex, who became a major specialist at the IISH on German exile.

In the early 1960s, the IISH cautiously reached out to the Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus (IML) in East Berlin. This institute of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) hoped to publish a complete source edition of all the writings of Marx and Engels and obviously needed the cooperation of the IISH to this end. Bahne and Langkau devised IISH policy for this ambitious project. They believed that if the East Germans managed to produce an edition that met Western standards of scholarship, the IISH should facilitate this effort. In 1972, following extensive discussions, the first volume of MEGA-2 was published in a vast series that has yet to be completed.

During these years Götz worked mainly on producing scholarly source editions. His support for foreign researchers was perhaps still more important. In the 1960s, research on the history of Marxism and the labour movement was revived. Increasingly, historians and students came to the IISH reading room. Despite the improved access, sorting through the maze of names, events, and organizations would have been impossible without direct assistance from people such as Götz, who was also one of the few specialists able to decipher the inscrutable handwriting of Karl Marx. He thus contributed to an infinite series of publications by others.

In the 1960s and 70s, Götz was also actively involved in organizing the IISH. Together with Leo van Rossum and Fritjof Tichelman, he ran - 'like a young puppy' as Tichelman worded the experience - against the old-fashioned and rigid IISH organization. The 'cabinet structure' that the IISH had maintained since 1935 had led, as Götz noted in 2022, to a 'feudal structure [and staff members who] run their sovereign little empires in isolation.’ Attempts by the staff to improve this situation were unsuccessful. A reorganization followed in 1983, ending many old practices. Afterwards, Götz Langkau continued as head and subject matter expert at the Central Europe department.

Götz's most important publications are source editions. In 1967, he published the first edition of the original manuscript by Karl Korsch, which had provided the basis for Karl Marx, a book on Marxism that appeared in London in 1938. His edition of Wilhelm Liebknecht's correspondence with fellow party members was published in 1988. Michael Buckmiller later carried on with the edition of Korsch's collected works. This is typical of Götz: the nine volumes of the Karl Korsch Gesamtausgabe were edited by someone other than the person who probably the most knowledgeable about this German Marxist.

Götz and Ulla befriended a wide circle of German researchers, who enjoyed visiting their flat in Amsterdam North. In addition to heated debates on Marxism and class relations, those present enjoyed good food and drink. When I joined the IISH as a young fellow long ago, I was very impressed by his scholarship and also somewhat intimidated by his manner; you easily felt insignificant. Gradually, I realized that Götz was very nuanced. If you asked a question, the detailed answer following lengthy deliberation reflected all the pros and cons. His death brings to mind a work style that has been considered old-fashioned for some time: careful, balanced, nuanced, comprehensive. In doing so, he was always very discerning of the text, with a keen eye for detail and for the source. In my opinion, these are elements that every historian needs to this day. At the same time, Götz Langkau always saw his work as a contribution to the struggle of the labour movement as well. Politics cannot exist without the most thorough scholarship.

Huub Sanders, 10 January 2024

Götz Langkau 1935-2023
Foto: Hans van den Boogaard, gebruikt met toestemming.