Transnational History between Vienna, Mexico, Berlin and Chicago: Towards an Intellectual Biography of Friedrich Katz

Generously funded by the Austrian Zukunftsfonds and the Botstiber Institute for Austrian-American Studies and carried out in cooperation with the University of Chicago, this project investigates the intellectual biography of Vienna-born historian Friedrich Katz. It focuses on the development of Katz as an engaged intellectual and academic who escaped the Nazis to Mexico, joined the Austrian Communist Party after WWII, worked in East Berlin until 1968 and established himself as the leading specialist on Mexican history at the University of Chicago, where he died in 2010. The archive at the Friedrich Katz Center for Mexican Studies and the university archives in Berlin, Vienna and Mexico hold the most important sources for this research.

Born in Vienna in 1927 and died in Chicago in 2010, professor Friedrich Katz was not only his era's foremost specialist in the history of the Mexican Revolution, but also an outstanding figure in 20th Century intellectual history. His multifaceted biography mirrors many aspects of transnational academia during and after the Cold War. This project sets out to scrutinize the personal archive of Friedrich Katz in Chicago, which has not yet been systematically analyzed, and bring these sources together with those held in other important sites of Katz’ activity: Mexico, Vienna and Berlin. Its findings will both be published independently and integrated into a larger research endeavor on Austrian immigration into the USA, launched by Günter Bischof (University of New Orleans) and entitled “Quiet Invaders” Revisited.

Friedrich Katz was born into a communist Jewish family that had recently migrated to Vienna from a village in today’s Rumania. As a political activist, journalist and writer, his father Leo Katz moved the family to Berlin in 1930. From there, they had to move to Paris after the Nazis’ rise to power and in 1940 flee on, first to New York and then to Mexico, where they finally found a safe haven in the realm of president Lázaro Cárdenas. Friedrich Katz, who became fluent in his fifth language at the age of 14, lived among one of the most fascinating and active exile communities of the time. Meeting in a number of clubs and the famous editorial El Libro Libre, intellectuals of the likes of Anna Seghers, Lion Feuchtwanger, Egon Erwin Kisch, Heinrich Mann, or Paul Merker had sought refuge in Mexico City, building a thriving and yet desperately fighting German-speaking left-wing and/or Jewish community. Although Friedrich Katz went to college in New York, he never lost his strong bonds to his first politicization and intellectual formation (at that time as a left-wing Zionist) in Mexico.

In the late 1940s, Friedrich again followed his father, this time back to Vienna. In one of the hot spots of the early Cold War and a heavily anticommunist hegemony in culture and academia, he joined the Austrian Communist Party while writing his dissertation on the national economy of pre-Columbian Aztecs. Despite the praised quality of his work, his peers made it clear that there was only one place they would write him a recommendation for: East Berlin. For over a decade, Friedrich Katz worked at Humboldt University, establishing himself as a celebrated Mexicanist and discovering the second great topic of his oeuvre, the Mexican Revolution. It was only after the repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 that he turned his back on his ideological background and left both Berlin and the Communist Party.

After a short stop-over in Mexico, where he witnessed the brutal suppression of the 1968 student movement, he received his first call to the USA from the University of Austin, Texas. And in 1971, in the middle of the Cold War, the former Communist Katz became part of the University of Chicago faculty, one of the cores of US higher education. It was in Chicago where Katz reached the height of his international fame as the most renowned scholar of the Mexican Revolution and its transnational ramifications. He was famous as both researcher and teacher, forming a whole generation of Mexicanists who today hold the most important positions at North and South American centers of this field. He was the driving force behind the University of Chicago’s Center for Latin American Studies’ rise to become a national hub for Latinamericanists, and the university’s Center for Mexican Studies has been bearing his name since when he was still an active academic.

Although much has been written and said about the life and work of Friedrich Katz since his passing in October 2010 , we still lack a systematic review of his archive and papers that would allow for a profound analysis of crucial aspects of his biography. This project does not aim at an all-embracing biographical reconstruction, but focuses on the development of Katz as a cosmopolitan intellectual in a world spanning from the Nazi-terror in Europe and the Mexican exile community over the post-WW II of “Third Man”-Vienna and the highly particular environment of East Berlin during the 1950s and 1960s up to one of the Olympian sites of US scholarship. In Katz, late Austro-Hungarian Jewish identity merges with his bond with the Mexican Revolution that had saved his life, with Socialist ideals that went way beyond anti-Fascism and with his scholarly passion for transnational social history.

By working through yet un-tackled sources (both archival and oral history interviews) and combining them with known material from a new perspective, I hope to make a contribution to two fields: On the one hand, to the history of Austrian 20th Century emigration to America, within which Friedrich Katz is one of the most fascinating and relevant figures who also remained in contact with his birth place all through his life. On the other hand, a biographical investigation into the many turns and volte-faces in Friedrich Katz’ professional life constitutes an intellectual history-study of transnational historiography avant la lettre, implying the transfers and transformations of concepts, ideas and ideology between Europe, the USA, and Latin America as well as over the Iron Curtain. In this latter sense the project fits into the context of my larger research program on the transnational transfers in discourse on history (historical references in political discourse) during the emergence of the Global South in the 20th Century.